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16 Things to Look For on a Test Drive

Alex Palmeri
March 14, 2019

If you’re in the market for a car, you know you need to take a test drive before making a decision. But getting behind the wheel is only the start — what should you be looking for during this ride?

Well, a lot of things (see the full list below). But if you’re looking at a used car, the mileage on the odometer will play a big role. Let’s break it down into chunks.

If the car has around 30,000 miles 

  1. Brake issues: Brakes can last a long time, but if the previous owner used the vehicle primarily in the city, they could be worn out at this mileage. During your test drive, watch out for pulsations in the brake pedal or steering wheel when braking, and listen for grinding or scraping noises when applying the brakes.
  2. Alignment and tires: The tires on a new car last about 50,000 miles. If the car you’re test driving has the original tires, make sure the treads are wearing evenly and use the penny test to make sure they’re not too worn. If the tire tread looks lower in one area, the car may be out of alignment. During your test drive, make sure the steering wheel holds straight and the car doesn’t drift to one side.
  3. Rock chips: A car with 30,000 miles should be in almost perfect cosmetic condition. Look closely to make sure it doesn’t have minor defects like paint chips. Inspect the front bumper, side mirrors and the area of the rear bumper or quarter panel behind the rear wheels. Paint can be touched up, but chips on metal panels can lead to rust.
  4. Interior wear, stains and odor: Pull up the floor mats and inspect for stains, salt damage and holes. Inspect the outside seat bolsters, especially on the driver’s seat, as these tend to wear first. Make sure the headliner isn’t stained and that there are no cigarette burns. It’s hard to get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke. 
  5. Handling and ride: Your practically new car should drive like one, so don’t just take your test drive on smooth and flat surfaces. Take a few turns and make sure the handling is tight and responsive. Go over some rough roads and bumps, listening for squeaks and rattles. If you hear any abnormal sounds, have the steering and suspension inspected.

» MORE: Get a pre-purchase inspection done by a mechanic

If the car has around 60,000 miles

  1. Warning lights: Before the test drive, start the vehicle and scan the instrument cluster for warning lights or symbols. This could be a check engine light, a tire pressure warning light, an ABS or traction control light or just a reminder that the car is due for service.
  2. How’s the engine running? At this mileage, it’s essential to check that the engine is running smooth. You can gauge how an engine is running by putting the car in drive and holding the brake pedal down. Put your hands on the steering wheel and feel for a vibration or pulsation. The engine could be misfiring, or the engine mounts might be worn out.
  3. How does the engine sound? Most cars are designed to be very quiet, so if the vehicle sounds loud, have the exhaust inspected. It could be a rusted muffler or exhaust pipe, but it could also be a bad catalytic converter. The catalytic converter is pricey, but it’s typically covered under an eight-year/80,000-mile warranty. This is a good mileage to have it checked out either way.
  4. Rust and body corrosion: Inspecting the body and undercarriage is always a good idea. When rust is in its early stages, it may look like a small bubble in the paint. Check the wheel arches and around keyholes in the doors and trunk for rust bubbles. Rust and corrosion is covered under a manufacturer warranty — find out how long the warranty lasts.
  5. Air conditioning: A car’s refrigerant is meant to last the life of the vehicle, but sometimes leaks happen. Turn on the AC during your test drive and try it at all blower speeds. If you test in the summer, make sure it stays cold. If you test in the winter, humid or musty air will indicate a problem.

If the car has more than 100,000 miles

  1. Service records: Modern cars can easily go well past 100,000 miles, but they’ll be in better shape if they’ve been maintained. Ask for all service records available and match any maintenance that’s been done to what is listed in the owner’s manual. A car with a full report of maintenance and repairs is worth a lot more than a car with no history.
  2. Engine noise and smoking: At this mileage, a poorly maintained engine can start to show signs of problems. Start the engine, open the hood and listen closely. If you hear any knocking or ticking, it’s possible the engine is in serious trouble. The exhaust can be another warning flag. Check for the smell of burning oil or a sweet smell of burning coolant. If there’s any smoke, it’s bad news.
  3. How does the car start? When cranking the engine, it shouldn’t take more than about 2 to 3 seconds for it to start. If there’s a slow or weak crank, the battery or starting system has an issue. If it cranks strong but takes many revolutions to start, you may have a fuel system problem.
  4. Transmission and drivetrain issues: Drive the car in the city and on the highway to make sure it’s able to shift into every gear. Also, listen for howling, scraping or grinding noises while moving. This could be an issue with a drivetrain component. Take a turn slowly. If you hear a clicking, you could have a bad front axle.
  5. Check the interior: At this mileage, you want to make sure the interior isn’t worn out. Sit in each seat and make sure the padding is still firm and supportive. Look for rips and tears. Pull up each floor mat and inspect the carpets for mold and water.
  6. Fluids and leaks: Most cars have dipsticks for the engine oil, transmission fluid and the power steering reservoir. When the engine is cold, you can also quickly check the engine coolant, brake fluid and washer fluid to make sure they’re full. Any fluid that is low may indicate a leak that would require further inspection. A look under the car may reveal leaks, as well.

Items to check at any mileage

  • Condition of the tires
  • Brakes
  • Warning lights on the dash
  • Service records for maintenance and repairs
  • Is there an existing warranty?
  • Car history report
  • Fluids
  • Body lines and panel gaps
  • Rust and corrosion
  • Steering alignment
  • Engine noise
  • Transmission performance
  • Quick starting
  • Smoke from tailpipe
  • Condition of paint
  • Condition of interior
Alex Palmeri

About the Author

Alex Palmeri worked nine years as a master technician at Mercedes-Benz of Chicago and is currently the foreman at a large fleet garage. He writes about automotive news, maintenance and racing, and runs a YouTube channel called Legit Street Cars.

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