Buying brand-new cars without test driving them is common, especially when shopping for an econobox. These days, you can learn more about a brand-new car just by browsing the internet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed brands to enhance their respective virtual showrooms. While shopping for a brand-new car can be safely done without a test drive, the same couldn’t be said about used cars.
Test driving a brand-new car is meant to impress you with all the bells & whistles and the “joy of driving” that the car offers. Test driving a used car is about spotting existing & potential problems to help you negotiate better with the seller. It is something you do only if you’re a serious buyer.
There’s no need to be a professional race car driver when you’re testing a used car. Remember, it is about spotting existing and potential problems with the car. Take it for a cruise in the nearest town for at least a good ten minutes. See if the car drives as it should. Look out for slipping gears, delayed gear shift engagement, and abrupt gear shifts.
A video description of gear slipping is shown below (jump to 2:00 to prevent eardrum damage).
Slipping gears will sound as if you’re revving in “Neutral”, but you’re actually in “Drive”. Delayed gear shift engagement is when the car exhibits momentary delay when you shift to “D” or “R”. An abrupt gear shift is demonstrated in the video below (jump to 1:50).
Pay attention to how the car moves from stand still and pay attention to how it stops. The rule of thumb is to listen out for weird noises and jerky movements.
While you’re stopped at a traffic light, pay attention to how the car idles. Look out for excess vibrations and check the tachometer if the engine is idling at unstable RPMs.
Try doing a three-point turn and look out for delayed gear engagement, or worse, a stalling engine.
2. Drive over bumps and rough surface
Driving over speed bumps and rough surfaces is the best way to spot loosely-fitted parts, a bad suspension, or bad bushings. Slight vibrations and rattles are expected in used cars. Some clips may have broken behind the door trims or the dashboard. Those are generally easy fixes.
We’ve prepared a simple guide to check the car’s damping system. Generally, check for excessive nose diving & squatting, excessive body roll, steering wheel vibrations, and excessive bouncing. If symptoms of bad dampers are present, consider the cost of replacing them when negotiating.
Squeaky noises when driving over speed bumps are a sign of bad bushings. While you’re at it, also pay attention to rubbing noises at the wheel well area.
3. Do some Highway driving
If the place you’re meeting the seller is near a highway, great. Highways are a great place to test for bearing noise, to test the higher gear ratios, and to test the wheel alignment. Don’t go all Wangan Midnight during the test drive, just get the car up to speed and pay attention to the sounds that the car makes.
The video below demonstrates how a bad wheel bearing sounds like (jump to 1:40)
During normal city driving, there’s no chance to get up to fifth gear. Use the highway as an opportunity to see how well the car shifts into fifth. While you're doing that, check if the car pulls to the left or right.
Feel free to test the Auto-Cruise feature too if the car has it.
4. Steer the car at low speed
Once you’re done with the brief highway driving, drive to open parking spot. Here, test how the car turns at slow speeds. Turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and all the way to the right and listen out for noises. It could be the axle or CV joint. Here’s a video to show you what a bad axle sounds like. (jump to 0:48)
Here’s another video below to show you what a bad CV joint sound like. (jump to 0:38)
CV joints are constant velocity joints that keep the wheel turning while you steer left and right.
5. Test the features
Once you’re done driving the car around, make sure you’ve tested the features in the car too. It is important that the car drives well, but it is also important to have all the features in the car working well since you’ll be paying for them anyway.
Test the power windows, stereo system, central locking, air-conditioning, signal lights, windscreen wipers, and just about any feature there is on the car. Just try not to make it awkward between you and the seller.
Test driving a used car is something you do only if you’re a serious buyer. It means you’re ready to make a deal if the car works fine. Spotting existing and potential problems in a used car is a way to negotiate a better deal with the seller.
Some problems are tougher to fix than others, and it is up to you to decide if the car is worth the hassle. If you’re ready to bear the cost of repairing whatever that needs to be repaired, proceed with the purchase. Good luck!
Previously an engineer in an automotive manufacturing company and a highway concessionaire. A part-time research student on biofuels and diesel engines. Obsessed with vehicle electrification and the future of transportation.