The Checks - THE DRIVE

The test drive is critical, you need to drive the car for at least 30 minutes, at least 10 miles of varying conditions. The main areas to check are the engine, gearbox,   steering, suspension and brakes, only the last 3 of these areas are covered by the MOT test the others are not part of that test which is essentially a safety check. 

If the seller, dealer or private, turns down your request  for a test drive go elsewhere, there are no shortage of car dealers within say 30 minutes drive of your home and there are plenty more cars for sale.

Be aware you must have at least 3rd party insurance to drive someone else's car or be covered by your own existing comprehensive or arrange cover just for the test. Remember the saying " You bend it... you mend it !" 
You must drive the car yourself don't allow the seller to drive the car exclusively, it's easy to mask a number of problems that way, but you don't need to drive like a loony.

Drive carefully and attentively, you'll learn more about the car than trying to corner it on the door handles, you also won't make an immediate enemy of the seller which will set him against you at haggling time. 

It is useful to have the seller drive the car on the return part of the run as this allows you to sit and concentrate on engine, gearbox and differential noises, to look again at the complete interior, to check all gauges are operating correctly and within their normal ranges.

Most importantly with the test drive, does the car feel comfortable, does it suit you ? If you immediately dislike the driving position or find the car too powerful or don't think that you can handle it then it's probably time to abort the test,   clearly this is not the car for you, don't waste any more of the sellers - or your - time.

Listen closely to the sort of noises the car makes. If you hear anything unusual pull over or stop as soon as possible and investigate.
The commonest clues are :

1. Noises that rise and fall in frequency with the revs are engine related.

2. Noises that rise and fall with road speed relate to the wheels, tyres, gearbox or  

3. Rattles and squeaks on bumpy roads indicate suspension or body problems.

4. Noises when braking indicate a brake problem.

5. Screeching noises usually relate to alternator or other component drive belts.

6. Squealing noises usually emit from the brakes.

7. Grinding noises can mean brakes or major engine problems.

8. Clattering noises usually mean engine or fan problems.

9. Burbling or roaring noises usually mean exhaust problems.

10. Clunking noises usually emit from the suspension.       

A bit of blue smoke on start-up is not uncommon with older cars but if it doesn't ease after a few seconds and if it reappears when you push the accelerator pedal down several times then there are some expensive things going wrong in the engine, you don't want that expense.

Watch in the rear mirrors for signs of smoke on gear changes, it's bad news, usually a sign of burning oil, probably due to engine wear, worn piston rings or some other expensive engine problem.
If the car heats up too fast on the temperature gauge there could either be cylinder head or radiator problems.

Try to find a hill during the test and check that the car pulls up it strongly.

While driving check that all of the gears are easily selected, there is no play in the gearlever and the clutch operates as it should with a smooth take up and no noise. The gearbox should be quiet with little whine. Try to drive the car gently away from rest in second or third. If the car can do this the clutch should be O.K.  A new clutch will cost about £100.

Also a possible whiner is the rear differential on a rear drive car, too much noise or vibration means it's shot and may cost £200 to fix. Modern front wheel drive cars generally combine gearbox and differential in one. 

For a front wheel drive car, at some point during the test, drive the car slowy on full lock both sides, a knocking noise can indicate worn drive shafts, expensive troubles.  

If the car has an automatic gearbox run up and down through all of the gears manually - at appropriate speeds - put it into D - Drive  - and try the Kickdown,   flooring the accelerator briefly, all changes should be immediate and very smooth with no noisy clonking or jerkiness which may mean the 'box is in very poor shape. A new autobox can cost a £1000 so beware.

On a quiet piece of road, with no other traffic around,   try to stop the car from around 20 mph just with the  handbrake. If the car pulls up evenly with just two or  three notches of travel all is well. Check the handbrake is capable of holding the car on an incline.

At about 20 mph repeat the stopping test using the front brakes only, ensure they don't pull to 1 to one side or the other - sign of an overhaul needed - the car should pull up straight without excessive pressure being needed.

If you know the car is fitted with ABS try it but only, again, on a clear road at low speeds.

If the steering wheel judders in your hands the steering may need work or the wheels may be unbalanced or perhaps a wheel weight has fallen off.


Abstracted from the book “Buying a Used Car” © G Benge 1997-2007

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