After satisfying yourself that the engine (and car) is in reasonable condition, you will want to road test the car. So, what to watch for?

You’re purchasing a machine in which you will be spending many, many, hours on the road. Does the car fit? Can you get in and out easily?  Are the controls easy to reach? Can you see out? Does the seat belt cut across your neck? These are just some of the issues we face when you buy the wrong size of car – and you often don’t realize these issues until months of ownership.

Assuming that the vehicle feels comfortable, let’s go for a road test. Oh, and remember: turn the stereo off completely. Music will easily mask a potential problem with the vehicle.

We’ll start with testing the transmission and driveline. Once the engine has settled down to an idle, shift the vehicle to reverse, the shift should be smooth, without any clunking or jerking. There may be some movement as the vehicle loads the braking system, but this should seem effortless. After backing out, shift to drive, again this should occur without drama.

Allow the vehicle to accelerate at a normal pace. Listen to the transmission as it shifts. The automatic shifts should be seamless and feel natural. On standard cars the clutch should take up without any slipping or grabbing. Shifts should not be accompanied by crunching or grinding (signs of a worn gearbox). In any case, the driveline should be free of slack and most importantly noise. 

The exhaust note should emit a soft purr. If the vehicle has been modified then make sure that all of the emissions equipment is present. 

A trick most mechanics use is to block the exhaust pipe briefly with a wiper or rag. This should increase the back pressure enough to detect any leaks in the system.  If you can do this test, no worries: the system has to tested anyway before a certificate is issued.

Apply the brakes gently. The vehicle should stop in a straight line. No squealing or noise from the wheels and no pulling. If the vehicle is equipped with anti-lock brakes we have to run a second test. This time, run the car to higher velocity and slam on the brakes. The brake pedal should vibrate indicating that the ABS has kicked in. (It goes without saying that we don’t test these functions in traffic.)

Overall, the vehicle should feel light and easy to drive. If it does feel right, there could be a chance it isn’t. Best advice is to have someone who is familiar with cars accompany you. 

Most shops will gladly inspect your car, best to arrange this before your test drive so that you can drop in when it’s convenient.

If you’d like to learn more about used cars, check out:
Used truck buyer’s guide checklistTop 10: Used cars to avoidUsed high performance cars you can afford