How to Test Drive a Used Car

Jim Sharifi
February 28, 2011
How to Test Drive a Used Car

Used cars can present a few challenges to buyers on the lookout for a fair deal. Daily wear-and-tear, as well as warranty periods that have run their course mean that while used car shoppers can save money, they don’t necessarily have the safety net that new car buyers get when they drive off the dealer lot.

Still, a thorough check of maintenance, vehicle condition and history, and a proper test drive should quell the concerns of many buyers. While noting the items on our list is no substitute for having your next car checked out by a mechanic, it will help you focus on your best options.

Routine Maintenance Items

Before you even get behind the wheel, there are a few things you should check around the any used car you’re considering. Check the condition of the tires to ensure that there’s plenty of tread left and ensure that all of the engine fluids are clean and filled to the proper level. If possible, try to look at the car when the engine is cold. Crawl underneath before starting it up and look for evidence of leaking fluids. Then, check for leaks again on the ground and under the hood when the engine is running. Look down the sides of the car for imperfections that might indicate body repairs. If it looks like the car has been in an accident, ask the seller to explain.

Exterior Checklist




Tires: At least ¼” tread on each?



Are there any leaks?

When the car is on?



When the car is off?



Signs of body repair/accidents?



Are the fluids




Filled to proper level?



Does the engine knock, tick or hiss?



Comfort and Convenience

Once you’ve looked over the exterior, it’s time to get inside and see if you’re comfortable. Adjust the seat, steering wheel and mirrors to make sure you can get a good driving position. Also check the visibility – if there are large blind spots, or any other visibility issues, you may want to shop other models.

If you’ll frequently have passengers, check rear seat comfort to ensure that there’s enough head and leg room. If the cabin seems comfortable, check the available cargo space to make sure that there’s enough to meet your needs. If you frequently transport items like golf clubs or a dog kennel, bring them along to make sure that they fit properly.

Comfort Checklist




Comfortable Seating Position?



Adequate Cargo Space?



Decent Visibility?



Check for Wear-and-Tear

If everything checks out so far, you should look the vehicle over to make sure that all gauges, switches, controls and locks are in proper working order. Fiddle with the lights, windows, heating and air conditioning, and radio to ensure that they all work properly. Also open and close all doors, hood and trunk for proper operation.

Switchgear Checklist




Do doors, trunk and hood open and close properly?



Are the keys and locks in proper working order?



Do all interior controls work properly?










Heating and Air Conditioning?






Vehicle History and Service Records

Now it’s time to get some information on the car. If you’re buying from a private seller, ask if the service records are available. If so, check to make sure that all routine maintenance has been taken care of in a timely manner. Has the vehicle been subject to any safety recalls? If so, you’ll want to ensure that it’s gone in for the necessary service. You can check to see if any recalls affect the vehicle you’re considering on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website.

Next, it’s wise to use a service such as Carfax to insure that the car you’re looking at has a clean vehicle history. Carfax searches the vehicle identification number (VIN) to check for accidents and odometer problems, as well as records of fire or flood damage. A clean vehicle history means that your next car may be in better condition, lessening the chance for expensive repairs down the road.

Vehicle History Checklist




Clean Vehicle History?



Available Service Records?



Any Recalls?



Test Drive

If you have a good feeling about the car at this point, it’s time to get in and take it for a test drive. Keep the radio off during your drive and avoid conversation. Instead, listen for noises that may indicate issues which need repair. Pay specific attention to any vibrations, as the vehicle should accelerate, brake, corner and steer smoothly. If the car does not operate as it should, you’ll likely end up taking it in for service sooner than you planned.

Test Drive Checklist




Any vibrations

At low speed?



Above 60mph?



Does the Steering Wheel




Pull to either side?




Does Gear lever operate properly?



Shift smoothly during the drive?



Any odd noises or vibrations on acceleration?




Are they squishy?



Do they pull to one side?