Test Drive a Used Car

Shopping for a car is an exciting time, but it’s important to take some precautions to ensure you make a good investment, especially when looking at used cars. Once you’ve found a used car that you like, inspect the exterior, test out the interior features, then take the car for a test drive to make sure everything is in good working order and that the car feels good to you. If you still want to buy the car after the test drive, get it inspected by a mechanic first to make sure there are no hidden issues. If everything checks out, then you can make the deal and enjoy your new ride!


Inspecting the Exterior

  1. Examine the tires to make sure they are in good shape.[1] Look to see that the tires don’t have excessive wear, cracks, splitting, or anything stuck in them, such as nails or screws. Stick a ruler in the tread of the tires and make sure they have at least {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} of tread left.[2]
    • If you don’t have a ruler available, you can also do the penny test. Stick a U.S. penny with Lincoln’s head facing down into the crack of the tread. If you can’t see the top part of Lincoln’s head, the tread is still good. If you can see Lincoln’s whole head, the tires are worn out and need to be replaced.[3]
  2. Inspect the ground underneath the car for any fluid leaks. Look closely at the ground everywhere underneath the car to make sure there are no spots from leaking oil or other engine fluids. Do this both before and after you test drive the car.[4]
  3. Look at the frame underneath the car for obvious damage. Get down on your hands and knees and look closely at the frame underneath the car. Make sure nothing is hanging off of it and that nothing looks crooked or out of place.[5]
    • Note that you won’t necessarily be able to spot frame damage by just looking underneath the car, but you can check the vehicle’s history report to see if any structural damage has been reported and you can also have a mechanic give it a more thorough examination.
  4. Look for exterior damage on the car. Walk around the entire exterior of the car and look carefully for rust, scratches, dents, missing pieces, and any other type of damage. Look for unevenness in the paint as well.[6]{{greenbox: Tip: Things like unevenness in the paint or ripples and dents in the body can be signs of accidents that the car was involved in that may have gone unreported. Cross-check the car’s history report with the VIN number to make sure everything matches up if there is any body damage.}}
    • Cars can get damaged when they are test driven, so it’s important to make sure the outside is in good shape before you get in for a test drive.
  5. Open and close all the doors and listen for strange sounds. Test out all the doors to make sure they feel and sound normal when you open and close them. Make sure the doors close securely and inspect the weather stripping around them to see if it is intact.[7]
    • Weird sounds sometimes mean the doors or frame of the car have damage. Examples of unusual sounds could be creaking, cracking, or clicking noises as you open or close the door.
  6. Check the VIN number at the bottom of the front window on the driver’s side.[8] This is where the VIN number is located in most newer models of cars. It is also sometimes located on the driver’s side door jam.[9]

Testing Interior Features

  1. Sit in the car and adjust the seat, steering wheel, and mirrors. Sit in the driver’s seat and adjust the seat and steering wheel so you are comfortable. Adjust the rearview and side mirrors so you can see in them well.[10]
    • If you can’t get comfortable and can’t get everything in a position where you can see what you need to easily, it probably isn’t a good car for you to buy.
  2. Test out all the basic interior lights and features.[11] Turn the key to the accessory position and make sure that the dash lights turn on. Turn on all the other interior lights to make sure they work as well. Test out the turn signal, horn, windshield wipers, locks, and windows to see that everything functions as it should.[12]
    • Keep in mind that if some lights or other electrical interior features aren’t working, it might just be a minor electrical issue that is easy and cheap to fix, so don’t rule the car out based on something like that.
  3. Turn on the heating and air conditioning to see if they work. Turn the car on and test out the heating and cooling systems. Turn the fan speed up and down and make sure that air is coming out from all the vents. Try out the defrost setting and verify that it works as well, including on the back window.[13]
    • No matter how hot or cold it is outside, it’s important to check that both the AC and heating work.
  4. Try out the speakers. Turn on the radio, put in a CD, or plug an AUX cord into your phone or an MP3 player to play some music. Try turning up the volume and listen to make sure the speakers don’t rattle or sound distorted.[14]
  5. Look for rips or stains on the seat upholstery. Open up the car doors and look closely at the driver’s seat, passenger seat, and backseat. Make sure the upholstery is all in good shape.[15]
    • If the car has carpeting on the floor, then check this for damage as well.

Taking the Car for a Test Drive

  1. Simulate your natural driving habits while you test drive the car. Try to take the car on a test route similar to where you would be driving it on a day-to-day basis. Drive the car at different speeds, but especially at the speeds you would be driving it at most regularly.[16]
    • For example, if you commute on the highway every day, take the car on a test drive along the highway to drive it at higher speeds and see how it handles and feels.
    • If you drive mainly on rougher city roads, try to take the car over some similar terrain to see how it feels.
    • If possible, it’s best to test drive the car for up to an hour so you get a thorough experience. However, the length of the test drive will depend a lot on how long the dealership or owner will let you drive it.
  2. Turn the car on and make sure it starts easily. Turn the key in the ignition to start the engine. Make sure it turns on in 1 try and that it stays running.[17]
    • Listen to how the car’s engine idles after you start it up as well. Make sure it isn’t idling at an abnormally high or low speed. Listen for any sputtering sounds and look behind you for any unusual exhaust fumes.
  3. Check that the car accelerates quickly and easily. Try accelerating at a safe speed and make sure the gas pedal doesn’t stick and that the car doesn’t have any delay in acceleration. Confirm that it is easy and smooth to accelerate in the car.[18]
    • Always be listening while you are test driving the car. Listen for any weird sounds when you accelerate.
  4. Ensure that the transmission shifts smoothly. Try shifting between different gears while you are driving. Make sure that there is no delay and that the car doesn’t lurch or make unusual noises when you shift gears.[19]
    • If the car has 4-wheel drive, test this out as well to confirm that it works.
  5. Test the brakes out at 30 mph (48 kmh). Press down on the brake pedal quickly and firmly while you are driving at a speed of about 30 mph (48 kmh). Make sure the car doesn’t swerve or make loud noises and that the brake pedal doesn’t pulsate or feel sticky or squishy.[20]
    • Pick a safe place to do this without traffic in front of or behind you. Don’t slam on the brakes on a wet road, either.
    • Also, verify that the car doesn’t lurch forward when you take your foot off the brake pedal.
  6. Drive over some bumps to see how the suspension feels. Look for a rough road or find some speed bumps or small potholes in the road. Drive over the bumps intentionally at a normal speed to see if the suspension feels nice and firm over uneven surfaces.[21]
    • Listen for any strange noises coming from the suspension as well when you drive over bumps and rough roads.
  7. Try parking the car in some tight spaces. Find a parking lot with some open spaces and attempt to park the car between the lines. Try parallel parking somewhere as well.[22]
    • This will help you determine how easy the car is to park as well as how responsive the steering wheel is. If the steering wheel is really hard to turn, feels strange, or makes any weird noises, then it might not be the car for you.
  8. Look at all the gauges while you are test driving. Confirm that all the correct gauges light up while the car is on and moving. Check whether there are any warning lights on.[23]
    • Keep checking the gauges the whole time you are driving to make sure that there are no irregularities. For example, it's unwise to buy a vehicle if the “check engine” light is on. While it could be a sign of a minor issue, it could also signify a major problem.
  9. Get the car inspected by a mechanic if you want to buy it. Always have a car you want to buy inspected by a professional mechanic before committing.[24] The car could still have problems or issues that you didn’t notice, even if everything felt great during the test drive.[25]
    • Avoid the temptation to buy the car on the same day as your test drive. Always give yourself time to consider the purchase and get the go-ahead from a trusted mechanic before committing to buying the car.


  1. [v161059_b02]. 11 June 2019.
  2. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  3. https://drivingpress.com/penny-test/
  4. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  5. https://www.carfax.com/blog/structural-damage-101
  6. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/09/527574528/buying-a-car-what-to-look-for-when-you-take-a-test-drive
  7. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  8. [v161059_b02]. 11 June 2019.
  9. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  10. https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/used-cars/how-to-test-drive-a-used-car
  11. [v161059_b02]. 11 June 2019.
  12. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  13. https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/used-cars/how-to-test-drive-a-used-car
  14. https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/used-cars/how-to-test-drive-a-used-car
  15. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  16. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/09/527574528/buying-a-car-what-to-look-for-when-you-take-a-test-drive
  17. https://www.autocheatsheet.com/used-car/used-car-test-drive.html
  18. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  19. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  20. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  21. https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/used-cars/how-to-test-drive-a-used-car
  22. https://www.balancepro.net/education/pdf/usedcartestdrive.pdf
  23. https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/used-cars/how-to-test-drive-a-used-car
  24. [v161059_b02]. 11 June 2019.
  25. https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/used-cars/how-to-test-drive-a-used-car

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