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7 Things to Look for During a Vehicle Test Drive

by Joshua D. Scroggin
May 24, 2018
A blue four-door compact car drives down a tree-lined country road.
Looking for a used car or maybe even a new one? Use these test drive tips to determine whether you're on the right track.

The time has come — you’ve been anxious to get behind the wheel of a new vehicle and feel that purr and smell that new-car aroma. There’s just one thing you have to accomplish first — the test drive. (And it’s crucial to make the most of this hands-on opportunity with what could potentially be your new ride.)

Here are seven things you should keep in mind when you go on your next test drive.

Inspect the exterior

Before you even set foot in the vehicle, there are steps you can take to check a few boxes by visually inspecting the exterior. The tires are a good place to start — particularly with a used vehicle. Do they have healthy tread? If not, you may be faced with a spendy upgrade upon purchase. This is also a good opportunity to check for dings or bumps on the body of the vehicle — get close to the surface, and look down the length of the car for any dips or valleys.

Inspect the interior

Before the test drive even begins, you should get a sense for the state of the interior of the vehicle as well. Is there any mold or rusting evident beneath the carpeting? Do the power windows work properly? How about the door locks? And don’t forget the sniff test — odor from a previous owner that smoked can be a difficult thing to shake.

Pop the hood

You don’t have to be an engine expert to check for obvious warning signs. When you pop the hood of the vehicle in question, look for oil splatter on the engine or underneath the vehicle. (And if the battery shows signs of corrosion or loose wiring, it could be a future trouble area.) The hoses leading to critical systems such as air conditioning or the vehicle’s radiator should also be free of cracks and other visible damage. When it comes to fluids, an indicator of an unhealthy car might be gritty or foamy oil or transmission fluid—these may be signals of engine cracks or future transmission woes.

Listen up

When the vehicle starts up, keep your ears open. If you notice any unusual sounds when you turn the ignition or when you brake or accelerate, it can be a sign of internal mechanical issues. If you hear something, say something—the salesperson may be forthcoming with the source of a given sound. (This is when it also helps to bring along a car-savvy friend or family member who can accurately identify odd noises.)

Feel it out

As you drive, the feel of the vehicle will also tell you some things about how it will operate in the long term. Are you able to shift from “park” into “drive” smoothly, or does it take some force? How about the brakes — does the vehicle jerk at all when you press on the brakes? What about the accelerator — when you’re not gripping the steering wheel, does acceleration cause the vehicle to cheat to one side or the other? These are all warning signs worth investigating.

Gauge the range

Not all cars operate equally from one driving scenario to another. If you plan on taking your vehicle outside city limits often, make sure you test how it operates on a highway, versus a city street. Get a sense for the vehicle’s range. Are you able to shift smoothly from slow to high speeds? And does the cruise control work properly? (Here’s where a listen test will come into play again — do you notice any rattling when on the highway?)

Monitor the amenities

This is obviously the lowest common denominator (unless you’re a big fan of the art of the cup-holder), but make sure the vehicle meets your comfort needs, too. Test out any Bluetooth or hands-free capabilities, and try out the speakers. Check out your seating position optimization options. And test out any charging docks to ensure they truly work.

Go forth and drive

Now that you have your test drive marching orders in hand, the next step is prepping your trip to the lot. Just make sure to have your preapproval in hand so you can know your buying power before you start your search. We suggest talking to a CoastHills lender — apply online today to receive your preapproval amount!

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