10 min read

Top 14 Tips on Test Driving a Used Car

Here are top 14 tips that every driver should know when test driving a used car.

Emily MacKinnon

Executive Assistant

Test Driving a Used Car

Buying a used car is a smart and affordable way of driving your dream car or getting a second daily-driver car. In fact, the used car industry is thriving because of the significant markdown off MRSP due to car depreciation. This is why a well-cared-for used car can be a surprisingly affordable asset to add to your key chain.

However, unlike purchasing or leasing a new vehicle, used cars, especially those not well maintained, can have the potential of being a money pit and source of seemingly endless frustration. From cracked gaskets and faulty suspension systems to those flashing engine lights that cause frustration and expensive visits to the mechanic. Needless to say, a poorly chosen used car is a frightful experience.

The good news is, that purchasing a used car in good condition does not boil down to pure luck. There are warning signs, if you know where to look, questions to ask the car dealership, and sounds to listen to, to differentiate a well-looked-after car and a money sinkhole.

Here is a quick checklist of tips, things to pay attention to, and questions to ask before you purchase a used vehicle.

Before Test Driving


1) Check the Carfax.

The Carfax gives you a record of the vehicle and informs you of any past accidents, maintenance, and service records. Always ask for a Carfax and any additional maintenance records on a vehicle. Take this time to find out how well the car was maintained and note any component that had to be serviced often. You want to rule out reoccurring fixes as they indicate reoccurring issues and premature wear and tear of that component. For some cars, these issues may not be costly, and simply depend on what needs constant servicing. Understanding a Carfax simply prepares you for upcoming maintenance and future repairs. This also will give you a general idea of the average cost of maintenance for the car over the course of a year.

2) What work did the dealership perform?

The answer to this question should reiterate what the Carfax has already stated. If the dealership performed similar work and found no additional issues apart from what the Carfax has stated, then chances of new issues being sprung on you are low. However, if there are new issues that the dealership worked on, that was not stated on the report, you need to ensure they weren’t major problem areas. This once again helps you factor in future finances for car maintenance. A well-looked-after car will last longer than someone constantly slamming their breaks causing unnecessary wear and tear between traffic lights.

3) Inspect accident areas (if any)

An accident does not mean a car is unsafe to drive. However, if a car has been in an accident, pay close attention to what part was affected.

For instance, if the accident was anywhere where the engine was located, be extra cautious. This is because while the engine may be running great right now, the accident may become an expensive issue in the future. Ask the car salesperson if the engine was thoroughly looked at because loose wiring, cracks in the engine, or some minute but expensive component, is not visible through a standard inspection.

Damage anywhere else on a car is usually not a major issue, assuming two things: Firstly, the repair was conducted by a certified mechanic and secondly there is no damage to the frame of the car. However, you can be assured that a car dealership cannot and will not sell you a faulty car that is unfit for the roads.

4) Measurements

Most houses have garages big enough for a car or two, but some are retrofitted with workbenches that minimize your parking space. There is nothing worse than falling in love with a car only to find that it does not fit in your garage.

5) Check under the hood

If you are savvy under the hood, don’t be afraid to pull the oil dipstick and look for dirty fluid and check the oil levels. Dark, sludgy deposits are a possible indicator of infrequent oil changes or contaminated oil and should be brought up with your salesperson. Moreover, when you pop the hood of the car pay attention to any overpowering odors which are typically signs of a leak. Speaking of leaks, take note of any drops or leaks while the car is turned on and parked, as that indicates a leaking hose or valve.

6) Test drive route

A typical test drive lasts about 20-30 minutes, but confirm the time limit with the salesperson as every car dealership has different rules about this. Be mindful to pick a path with various driving conditions and include a neighbourhood, the highway, merge lanes, and a parking lot. Ensure you test the breaks, acceleration, and deceleration of the car. Take your time instead of a short lap around the parking lot, after all this is your money and time.



While Test Driving

7) Sitting in the car

The first things you should take a mental note of are: How easy was it to get in and out of the car, are the pedals a comfortable distance, do the controls and dashboard feel natural, and if the seat is comfortable.

Additionally, bring someone along for your test drive and have them sit at the back. As a driver, you may not feel the road and bumps but the farther behind you are in the car, the bumpier the ride is - this is especially important if you are test driving a vehicle with third-row seating.

8) Check the breaks before you begin

Before you pull out of the lot, ensure the breaks are responsive and take note of the break time. Dealerships will replace brake pads as it is a safety issue, but it is a good idea to see how sensitive or hard you need to be breaking in any unforeseen event. Furthermore, at some point during your test drive, pull into a parking lot and test a soft and hard stop. A soft stop is a rolling stop that any daily driver performs. A hard stop is when you suddenly brake to avoid a collision - was the break responsive? Do give your passenger fair warning you are going to test for a hard stop, or let them out of the vehicle before you do so.

9) Listen to the car’s noises

Does the car creak when you break? How was the cabin noise while driving on the highway? Is there a sharp metal-like ticking sound when you turn? Each noise in a car corresponds to a different part of the car which may be an issue. It is best to let the car salesperson know about those noises and have them confirm with their mechanic about what could be causing them.

10) Feel the gears

If your speed increases as you gradually step on the pedal that means your gears are smooth. If your foot is almost touching the floor, your gears are sticky and have trouble shifting. Most 2015 and newer vehicles will have a relatively smooth gear shift process, and if you notice any lurching or abnormally high revving RPMs before a gear shift this might be an indication of an upcoming transmission problem or required software update. The latter is a much easier fix.

11) Feel the suspension

When test driving, go out of your way to drive over speed bumps and potholes as they are a good gauge of your suspension. Notice how the car sounds and reacts to these obstacles. If the car squeaks when going over, it might be a possible strut or shock coil that needs replacing.

12) Parallel park

Some cars are built with thicker pillars for safety. However, that lowers your visibility and creates blind spots while driving. Attempting to parallel park is the easiest way to learn about poor car visibility.


Additional Tips

13) Check the tech

-Pair your Bluetooth to see if it connects easily. Can you hear the caller easily and vice-versa?

-Check how clear or grainy the backup camera is (if there is one).

-Try out every button to ensure all features work from heated and cool seats to the moon-roof.

14) Bring your child seat (if applicable)

Bring your child seat to see how convenient it is to put it in place. Once it has been attached, notice how much room your child has and if you can easily access them.

Finally…If the used car you are test driving passes these basic checks then you are one step closer to buying your next car. However, it is okay to walk away if even one thing feels amiss. It is best to test drive other vehicles you have shortlisted and compare them with one another. Each test drive only builds your lens to discern and pick up on potential problems and finally find your slice of quality affordable luxury.

Comment below with some of your own tips or tell us which ones were completely new to you!

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