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Beware the Pothole: Avoiding a Used-Car Pitfall

Most of us know the risks when buying a used car. Previous owners can sometimes hide problems — the most nefarious ones may even try to resell cars that have been totaled due to flood damage or suffering serious mechanical defects.

Buying a certified pre-owned vehicle can help you avoid uncertainties, but if you’re a budget-minded shopper looking at higher-mileage cars, there are definitely some areas you’ll want a professional mechanic to inspect before closing the deal. Along with the engine and transmission, it’s a good idea to give the suspension and undercarriage a thorough once-over, as pothole damage is a common problem that buyers often miss.

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Performing various tests for engine compression, oil consumption and visible signs of damage can help you steer clear of expensive repairs down the road. But with infrastructure crumbling in many areas of the country, the effects of the dreaded pothole have become a new area of concern for used-car buyers. According to AAA, damage caused by potholes costs drivers across the United States almost $3 billion each year. If you live in a large metropolitan city with poor road conditions, it’s a good bet that many used cars in your area will exhibit some damage to their suspension, steering components and wheels.

To show just how problematic potholes can be, Advance Auto Parts recently created their own Pothole Dummy test car. The vehicle, a 2009 Dodge Charger with 100,000 miles on the odometer, was driven over some of the worst sections of Chicago’s city streets. The test driver, along with a few unlucky passengers, spent 5 days punishing the Charger at different speeds over variously sized potholes — they even put cameras in the car to tape the passengers’ reactions. During the 5 days of the test, which took the car a mere 255 miles, the Charger had encountered a total of 1,100 potholes.

An Expert Reveals the Damage

At the conclusion of the test, Advance Auto Parts had a certified mechanic inspect the Charger. He found numerous places where the car’s undercarriage was banged up, as well as loose suspension bushings and steering components so jostled that the car’s front end was in desperate need of alignment.

Over time, damage caused by potholes can become much more severe. Shocks can blow out, springs can break, critical steering components can become bent, and hoses can be knocked loose. Potholes can also wreak havoc on wheels and tires, and while the cost of replacing a single tire might not break the bank, many modern alloy wheels can be damaged beyond repair. Depending on the size of the wheel and the manufacturer, you may be looking at a bill running anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per wheel.

Do It Yourself

While it’s best to let a professional mechanic check out any potential used car, there are some inspections you can do on your own. To test the condition of the shocks, place your hands on the car’s front fender, and give a firm push. The car should rebound with one or two small bounces. If the car continues to bounce, the shocks are likely worn or shot. In the case of struts, you can look behind the wheel for signs of oil leaks from the strut cylinder.

You can perform another easy check during the test drive. If the steering wheel is off-center while you pilot the car in a straight line, you can bet the alignment is off. Similarly, if the car drifts or pulls hard to the right or left, this can be a sign of misalignment, damaged steering linkage or a frozen brake caliper.

Don’t get blindsided by pothole damage during your used-car search. If you know what signs to look for, you can save yourself the money and headaches that will accompany repairs down the road.


Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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