What should you look for when testing a used car?

Updated: August 20, 2022
Used cars are less expensive, you don't have to wait for the delivery and you are paying exactly for what you see. The big questions are what hidden problems does the car have and what is the mechanical condition?

Test driving a used carTest driving a used car.
A used car history report may help you avoid cars that have been restored after an accident or not serviced regularly, but it won't tell you anything about the current mechanical condition of the vehicle and not all accidents are reported.

This is why the test drive is an important part of the used car buying process. During a test drive, you can catch some signs of problems with the two most expensive to repair components: the engine and transmission.

Sometimes, you know that the car should be avoided right after starting it. We know how to test drive a used car, so we want to share a few tips with you.

Are you going to be comfortable driving this car?

Make sure the car is comfortable and adequate for your daily driving needs. If something doesn't feel right, ask yourself: can I get used to this or will it bother me for as long as I have this car?
2004 Toyota Prius interior The Toyota Prius is a great car, but the driver's seat is not comfortable a for tall person.

The placement of the controls or design of the gauges are easy to get used to. However, it's better to find another car If the driver's seat is too short or uncomfortable, or the pedals are too high or you don't have enough legroom or headroom.

One of our friends had to sell his almost new car, because the pedal placement caused pain in his foot. We also know a person who had constant back problems but they disappeared after he bought the Honda Accord with a manual transmission with a very comfortable seat.

How the engine starts when it's cold?

Many problems are easier to detect when the car is started cold. If the engine has loose pistons, sticky lifters, cracked exhaust manifold or stretched timing chain, you will hear it better when it's started cold. Once the engine warms up, many such problems might no longer be noticeable.
Blue smoke from a car exhaust If you see a blue smoke from the exhaust, avoid the car.

Avoid the car if the engine makes loud noises when started. Whether started cold or hot, the engine should fire right up and run smoothly.

Even a short puff of a blue or grey smoke like in the photo that smells like burning oil or coolant is a sure sign that the car should be avoided.

If the car battery is weak, the engine might crank slower or the car might need to be boosted to start.

Another issue you can catch when the vehicle is cold is automatic transmission problems. Avoid the car if the transmission engages with a delay or jolt when it's cold, even if it gets better once warmed up. All warning lights on the instrument panel should also turn off once the engine is started.

Is the car ready for a test drive?

Find out about insurance coverage for the test drive. Call your insurance if you are not sure. A used car sold at a dealership could be covered by the dealership's insurance policy, but a car sold by a private owner might not even be insured.

Make sure there is an insurance coverage before the test drive. To avoid distractions during the test drive, take some time to adjust the steering, driver's seat, mirrors and get familiar with controls and instruments.

Do the heater and air conditioner work?

We were looking at the used Dodge Dart at a local Chrysler dealership. After the engine ran for a few minutes, we tested the air conditioner, but it didn't work. The A/C light came on, but the air from the vents remained warm. The salesperson told us not to worry and that they will recharge the A/C before we take delivery.
Testing the A/CWhen you turn the A/C, the air from the vents should turn cold in less than a minute.

If the A/C doesn't work, there is a problem. How do you know if they will actually fix the leak or just recharge it so the A/C will work for a few days? When you turn the A/C on, the air from the vents should turn cold in a few seconds. You should also feel the engine tone change. This is because the A/C compressor kicks in. If there is not enough refrigerant in the A/C system, the A/C compressor won't kick in.

Check if the heater works well. One of the common problems is when you have a good heat from the vents when driving, but the air becomes barely warm when the car is stopped at the red light and the engine is idling. In this case, avoid the car. This could be caused by several problems, some of which could be expensive to repair.

Normally, once the engine is warmed up and the temperature set to maximum heat, the air from the vents should stay close to hot when the engine is running at idle.

Abnormal noises and vibrations are signs of problems

Many car problems result in abnormal noises while driving. For example, a bad wheel bearing or a transmission bearing can cause a humming noise that gets louder with speed. Watch the video.
This is how a bad wheel bearing sounds.

Cupped tires produce a similar humming or rumbling noise. Bad CV axles will cause clicking noises coming from the front wheels when accelerating in turns.

A loud whining noise coming from the engine compartment might be a sign of problems with the power steering pump or one of the belt pulleys.

A vibration felt inside when driving can be caused by many problems, including a bad tire, bent rims, drivetrain problem or other issues. If there is an abnormal noise or vibration, it's a sign of a problem. If in doubt, test drive another car of the same make and model to compare.

Is the vehicle holding the road well?

When driving on a straight, flat road, see if the steering wheel is centered and if the car doesn't pull to one side or another. If the steering is off center when driving straight, there is a problem with the wheel alignment.
Steering wheel is off center when driving straight The steering wheel is off center when driving straight.

Some problems with the suspension or wheel alignment can cause the vehicle to feel unstable or 'wander' side to side.

If the front tires squeal when doing a slow U-turn, it's also a sign that either the wheels are out of alignment, or there is some problem in the front end.

Normally, the car should hold the road well and feel very stable on the highway.

Watch out for signs of automatic transmission problems

Automatic transmission When test driving a car with an automatic transmission, watch out for delays, slipping, harsh shifting or any other signs of a worn transmission.
When test driving a car with an automatic transmission, watch out for delays, slipping, harsh shifting or any other signs of a worn transmission.

If you accelerate slowly, you should be able to feel how the transmission shifts gears, unless it's a continuously variable transmission or CVT that changes gear ratio gradually.

The acceleration should be smooth. For example, some cars with a worn CVT exhibit a "judder" or jerkiness when accelerating. Some double-clutch transmissions also have problems that cause shuddering when taking off.

Watch out for a jolt when coming to a stop. A strong clunk or jolt, when the transmission is shifted into Reverse, is also a sign that the car should be avoided.
Another common problem is when the transmission slips into neutral. For example, when you are coasting in Drive and then accelerating there is a delay, like the transmission is still in neutral, and then it engages with a dealy.

In some transmissions a worn-out bearing or gear can cause a whining, humming or whirring noise that can be noticeable on acceleration or deceleration.

Watch out for "gear hunting" when you are driving at a steady speed, but the RPMs keep going up and down, like the transmission doesn't know which gear to shift to.

Transmission repairs are expensive. Avoid the car if you feel that something isn't right with the transmission. Even if the dealer tells you that "it's normal" or that they will "update the software", look for another car.

What to watch out for when test driving a car with a manual transmission

For cars with a manual transmission, try accelerating and decelerating in every gear and listen for gear noises. A good transmission will quiet.

Humming or whining noises are the indication of wear. Shifting in and out of any gear should be easy. Gears should engage smoothly, without much effort or grinding.
Stick shift Manual transmission.

Another common issue is when the shifter pops out of gear by itself while driving.

When releasing the clutch pedal when taking off, feel when the clutch starts to engage. If it engages at the very end of the pedal travel, the clutch is most likely worn.

You can also detect the clutch slipping when accelerating in 3-rd or 4-th gear while driving uphill. If the clutch is slipping, you will see the engine RPMs go up without increase in speed. Replacing the clutch is a costly repair.

Listen for noises when driving slowly on a rough road

To catch worn out suspension or steering parts, find some rough road that is safe and drive slowly. It's easier to hear the noises with the windows closed.
driving on a rough roadTest drive on a rough road.

Knocking, clunking or rattling noises, shifting left to right is a sign of suspension/steering problems that must be checked by a mechanic.

If the car shakes or bounces excessively when driving over bumps, the struts and shock absorbers could be bad.

Watch out for rattling or knocking noises felt in the steering. This type of noise is noticeable when driving over small potholes or on an unpaved road. Some of the steering problems could be expensive to repair and must be checked by a mechanic.

How do the brakes feel?

Steering wheel shakes while braking Rusted or warped brake discs (rotors) can cause the steering wheel to shake during braking.
Do brakes work well? Watch out for a pull or vibration felt in the steering when braking. The steering vibration (shake) that is only present while braking is usually caused by warped or rusted brake discs (rotors).

This problem is often more noticeable when exiting the highway, read more in this article. It's not a very expensive problem, but it should be repaired before you pick up the car.

If the steering wheel pulls to one side during braking, there is a more serious problem with the braking system. The brake pedal that is spongy or goes down too far is another sign of a problem with brakes. Of course, the only way to check if the brakes are safe is to have the car inspected by a mechanic, read more below.

How long should a test drive be?

Normally, it takes 20-30 minutes to test drive a used car. However, it's not uncommon when buyers request a second test drive before making the final decision. If you are going to spend a significant chunk or your hard-earned money, you want to be comfortable with your purchase.

Take a used car for an inspection to an independent mechanic

If you like the car, arrange for it to be inspected by an independent mechanic before buying. It's even better if the mechanic is specializing in that brand of car.

Don't rely on a written inspection report; try speaking directly to the mechanic. Ask the mechanic, would he or she buy this car and if not, why?

Check reviews, sites like CarComplaints.com and NHTSA complaints for the most common complaints for this make and model and ask the mechanic about them. Inquire what kind of repairs to expect in the future.

We hope this info will help you find your "new" used car! Please share this guide.