Car Buying

7 Unusual Test Drive Tips

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author photo by Nick Palermo August 2013

There's nothing more frustrating than bringing a used car home and realizing that something doesn't quite work right. Unfortunately, this can happen to even the most prepared buyers -- the ones who take a long drive and really get the feel of their cars. But to make sure it doesn't happen to you, we've prepared a list of seven unusual test drive tips. While our list can't replace a mechanical inspection, it may help you find something that most buyers would miss -- and it could save you thousands of dollars.

Spray a Hose on It

This one sounds strange, right? But it can be surprisingly effective. Modern cars have dozens of rubber seals located all around the side windows, doors, front and rear glass and -- if applicable -- the sunroof. Spraying a hose on a used car during a test drive is an easy way to tell whether any of these rubber seals are cracked, broken or missing -- something you might not easily notice otherwise. It can also let you know if the car has a window that doesn't quite close properly, which you may not discover until it rains.

Check the Door Jambs

If a car has been repainted, the easiest way to tell is by checking the door jambs. While many body shops can do an excellent job on the doors, trunk, hood or fenders, most forget to repaint unseen areas like the door jambs. If you notice that the paint quality is very different, or if the door jambs are a different color entirely, it's a clear sign that the car has been repainted. That may not be reason enough to walk away, but it's a good sign that you need further inspection from a mechanic to tell if the car has been in an accident.

Be a Rear Passenger

No, you don't need to ride in the back on the test drive. But you should try out every single item that a rear passenger might use. That includes rear windows, rear reading lamps and every rear seat belt. The reason is obvious: Even if you don't plan on carrying many rear passengers, the next owner might -- and if he or she discovers problems with the features in back, it may be hard for you to sell the car.

Slam on the Brakes

Yes, that's right: We highly recommend taking at least one panic stop in your potential new car. Obviously, be sure to ask permission from the seller before you do it, and be careful to slam on the brakes in a safe place. But once you have permission and are in a safe location, don't be shy. Listen for two things: In a car with anti-lock brakes, try to determine whether you can feel the brake pedal pulsing against your feet. If not, there may be a problem. And listen to the sound of the brakes as they're slowing you down. If there's a grinding noise, it may be time for new brake rotors or pads -- and that could be expensive.

Check the Lights

While replacing a light can be a minor, inexpensive fix, a broken headlight or taillight also can signify a seller who hasn't taken proper care of a car. When you test drive a vehicle, be sure to check all the lights, and not just the headlights. Check the taillights, turn signals, high beams and even the reverse lights. All are highly important -- especially if you live in a state that requires rigorous vehicle inspections.

Shift Into the Highest Gear

This one only applies if you're considering a manual car. We recommend, at some point in the test drive, coming to a complete stop and then shifting into the highest gear. From there, let the clutch out and begin accelerating. If the engine speed -- noted on the tachometer -- begins quickly climbing, the car's clutch is telling you that it's about ready to go out. Again, we highly recommend a full mechanical inspection, but this is an easy way to check the clutch before you even visit a mechanic.

Load the Trunk

Here's another one that might sound odd, but we promise there's a method to our madness. Filling a car's trunk with heavy items can be a great idea, because it gives you a chance to test out the rear suspension. A car that makes unusual noises with a loaded trunk may have rear suspension problems -- and those can be expensive to fix.

What it means to you: If you're considering a used car, our unusual test drive tips are a good way to check for some potentially expensive flaws.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
7 Unusual Test Drive Tips - Autotrader