What to look for in test drive: Before test driving, make sure the car has a license plate(s) and insurance. Adjust the seat and mirrors, get familiar with controls. The longer you drive, the more chances you have to notice various issues with the car. Often problems become more evident when the vehicle is fully warmed up. For example, an automatic transmission may start acting up only after 20-30 minutes of driving, or the engine may show signs of overheating when driven longer. Some issues (e.g. noisy wheel bearings, drivetrain vibration, alignment issues, noisy tires) are more noticeable when driving on the highway. Suspension and steering noises are easier to notice when driving slow over rough roads. What to watch out for:
With the car standing still:
With the engine idling, when you shift the automatic transmission from Park to Drive, is there a long delay before the transmission engages? (possible transmission issues).
When you shift from Drive to Reverse, do you feel a strong jolt or a clunk? (transmission or driveline issues)
Do you feel excessive engine vibration inside when the car idles in Drive? (possible bad engine mounts).
Around the city:
Do you notice any hesitation or stumbling during acceleration?
Does the engine feel smooth and responsive or sluggish and “rough”?
Any irregular noises or vibration on acceleration or deceleration?
Do you notice a clicking or popping noise when accelerating in turns? (possible bad CV-joints)
Does the transmission shift smoothly on acceleration and deceleration?
Any jolts, slipping or delays when transmission shifts from one gear to another?
Any jolts when coming to a stop? (Transmission or AWD system issues).
When stopped at the red light, is the engine idling smoothly or rpms jumping up and down?
Does the car hold a straight line well or pulls to one side or another? (wheel alignment issues)
Is the steering wheel centered when driving straight? (wheel alignment issues)
Any knocking thumping or rattling noises when driving on rough roads? (suspension or steering issues)
Does the car “bounces” excessively when driving over bumps? (possible bad shock absorbers or struts)
Any noises while braking? Does the car pull aside during braking? Does the brake pedal feel too low or
Does the hand brake hold the car from rolling on the incline?
On the highway:
Does the car feel stable or drifts to one side? (wheel alignment issues)
Do you feel vibration at higher speeds? (wheels and tires issues).
Any humming or rumbling noises? (possible noisy wheel bearings or cupped tires).
Any whining or noises when accelerating or decelerating? (transmission, AWD system, driveline, etc.).
Does the steering wheel shake during braking? (warped or rusted brake rotors).
Does the cruise control work?
After the test drive
If anything doesn’t feel right, consider test driving another car of the same model to compare. Discuss any issues that need to be addressed before signing the contract. For example, if the car needs new tires or brakes and the salesperson promises “to take care of it” make sure to discuss in details what kind of tires or brakes will be installed? Cheapest possible or of the reputable brand? If they offer you an extended warranty, thoroughly study the contract for what is covered and what not.
While this guide may help you to avoid cars with potential problems, I strongly advise to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic of your choice before buying it; there are many components that can only be properly inspected in a repair shop with the car on the lift.