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Test Driving a Used Vehicle

How to test drive a used vehicle

All of the things we recommend looking for, below, are important for three reasons:

  1. They may indicate a condition that needs work, thereby increasing the cost of ownership, and this might impact the price you’re willing to pay

  2. They help to paint an overall picture of the way the car has been treated and maintained

  3. They help to assess the reliability of what the seller tells you about the car. Does their story match up with what you can observe on your own

This post only covers what to look for while driving the vehicle. For recommendations on what to look for while inspecting the vehicle, see this post.


When you schedule your test drive, request that they don’t start the vehicle for an hour before you get there. Some used vehicles start with a much more reassuring sound and feel when they’re warmed up.Sellers might “get it out of the garage for ya” just before you get there, as a “courtesy”. You’ll learn more about the vehicle if you specifically ask them to leave the engine cold.


Be sure to take the vehicle on both city streets and the freeway. Some conditions/symptoms are only evident at certain speeds.


What to look for

You’ll want to try out all the electronics/accessories. Test the windows, locks, interior lights, exterior lights, and radio. Listen to the sounds the AC and heat make, and feel the air to make sure it blows hot and cold as expected. Test the AC/heat with the windows up to see if there are any strange smells coming from the air system.


Once you try out the accessories, cut out all the noise so you can listen to other things. Turn off the AC/heat/air, turn off the radio, and keep the idle chit chat out. While driving, make any talk is about the car and getting the info you need to make a good decision. Try listening to the sound of the vehicle with the windows both up and down. Listen for knocks, rattles, coughs, and clicks.


How smoothly does the vehicle drive? It should respond well to the gas pedal, shift without over-revving or jerking, and have little to no play in the steering wheel.


Find a quiet cul-de-sac or parking lot, and drive slowly in circles with the windows down, to test for clicks or knocks coming from the CV joints (for AWD and front wheel drive vehicle).


Let the vehicle idle next to a large wall. The sounds it makes will be magnified, which might make some more subtle noises audible.


Test the brakes for responsiveness while driving. Be safe: make sure there is not another vehicle tailing you when you do this, and don’t slam the pedal so hard you lock up the wheels and go into a skid.


Test the alignment while driving by hovering your hand just above the steering wheel to see if the vehicle has a tendency to drift without being held straight. Also do this while gently braking. The car should hold straight or pull slightly to the right. Be safe: Do this on a straight, level road. Be alert to whats around you and in front of you, and hold your hand ready to instantly grip the wheel.


Don’t let excitement about a deal, or impatience, jade your perspective. Its easy to get invested when you spend time inspecting another vehicle, mainly because you’s prefer this one to be the one, rather than the next one.


Get an inspection before buying

Finally, to complete the picture of how reliable a car is going to be, have the car inspected by a qualified third party. If you’re in the Des Moines area, you can bring a used vehicle to ABC Auto Repair for a pre-purchase inspection.


This service includes a compression check and a thorough visual inspection. The process takes ~90minutes and is available for $125. Call (206) 395 5300 to schedule.


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