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Test Drive Checklist

by Autobytel Staff
May 21, 2011

Whether you’re buying a used car or a new vehicle, a key component of the decision will be the test drive of the car so a test drive checklist is essential.  Here‘s a test drive checklist of things to look for, including what to do before you get in the car.

  • For a used car, research the price to see how close it is to ‘blue book’ before your test drive.  Much higher is unrealistic; much lower should make you wonder.
  • Make sure you have your license.  If you’re going to a dealer, make sure you get it back when you’re ready to go.  If they give you an excuse to keep you there, go somewhere else.
  • Check things out when you get there.  If the car—or the owner—doesn’t look right, don’t get in.
  • Don’t waste your time—or anyone else’s.  If the car doesn’t meet your needs, offer your apologies and go.  No one likes a lookie-loo.
  • Do it in the daytime.  A car will look different even under the brightest lights.
  • Drive on the streets and freeways, as much as you can.  Pick your own routes and road surfaces from city streets to winding roads, hills and freeways to test ride quality.
  • Is the car powerful enough for everyday use?  Test it merging onto a highway, passing and in city driving.  Does running the air conditioner result in unacceptable power loss?  
  • Take your time.  If the owner or dealer tries to rush you, take a walk.
  • Many people rent the model car they’re considering buying.  A weekend rental can give you a chance to ‘live with’ the car to find out if it really works for you.
  • If you’re uncertain, get a mechanic to look at the car.  It will be money well spent.

Do a visual inspection before you drive.  Our accompanying Vehicle Inspection Checklist has much more detail, but try to answer these questions to your satisfaction first.

Does the car look good from a distance and close up?            Yes___            No____

Any visible leaks under the car or dripping from the car?  Yes___            No____

Scratches/dents/discolorations/rust?                        Yes___            No____

Any windshield cracks or scrapes?  Yes___            No____

Is it a color you can live with for the next five years? Yes___            No____

Does the car look straight? Yes___            No____

Do the tires all match and have good tread?  Yes___            No____

Key remote available, works?    Yes___            No____

Easy to open hood, trunk/hatch, doors?  Yes___            No____

Do the seats adjust (and fold) easily?  Yes___            No____

Are the car’s controls and gauges easy to understand and use?            Yes___            No____

Are the steering wheel and pedals easy to reach for the drivers in your family?              Yes___            No____

Seats and seat belts in good shape?                        Yes___            No____

Good front and rear headroom?            Yes___            No____

Good front and rear legroom, arm and shoulder room, ‘butt room’?            Yes___            No____

Enough trunk or other cargo space for your needs?                        Yes___            No____

Good visibility through the windows and with the mirrors?            Yes___            No____

Air conditioning works?               Yes___            No____

Heater and defroster?                        Yes___            No____

Do all power options (locks, windows, antenna, seats, etc.) work?  Yes___            No____

Stereo, CD player, GPS, MP3 jack, etc. working?            Yes___            No____

Does the car starts up easily and smoothly—no grinding?            Yes___            No____

Stand behind the car.  Any smoke?  Yes___            No____

(A little white smoke is normal.    Blue smoke indicates burning oil. Black smoke indicates engine may be getting too rich a fuel mixture, while heavy white smoke can mean a blown head gasket or cracked head.)

Engine responds smoothly and quickly to pushing accelerator pedal?  Yes___            No____

Accelerate going up a hill.  Does the engine seem strong and smooth? Yes___            No____

Easy to pass other vehicles?   Yes___            No____

Engine is quiet, not noisy?  Yes___            No____

Any pinging from the engine, rattles, knocking or grinding? Yes___            No____

Do you feel any vibrations, engine hesitation, or slow or inconsistent acceleration?   Yes___            No____

Does the transmission shift smoothly from low to high and back without jerking, slipping, “clunking noises”, grinding or hesitation?             Yes___            No____

Is there a delay between increasing engine speed (pushing the accelerator down and watching the RPM go up) and the car moving to a higher speed?   Yes___            No____  (A delay may mean transmission issues.)

Does the car respond quickly and smoothly to your use of the steering wheel and brake? Yes___            No____

When there’s no one nearby on the road, take your hands off the wheel.  Does the car pull sharply to one side? Yes___            No____    (Veering can indicate car needs front-end alignment).

Make a few slow, tight turns in each direction (do it in a parking lot for safety!)  Any noise coming from front wheels (which might indicate CV joint problems)?     Yes___            No____

When you do long and short turns  and freeway lane transitions, does the car provide good steering response?             Yes___            No____

When you go over bumps or rough pavement, do you hear rattles, squeaks, and loose suspension?             Yes___            No____

Is it easy to parallel park?             Yes___            No____

Does the car pull, wander or shake?                         Yes___            No____    (This could indicate an alignment, suspension or tire issue.)

Don’t be afraid to try a sudden evasive swerve (make sure you’re clear of other cars!)  Does the car respond well?                        Yes___            No____

Is the car quiet under various driving conditions, as when the fan and heater or AC are on?         Yes___   No____

Do the brakes provide good feel and strong stopping ability?

Yes___           No____

Do the brakes stop the car quickly in a ‘panic stop’?

Yes___           No____

Do the brakes stop the car quietly, without pulling to one side or squeaking? Yes___    No____    (Squeaking brakes may mean you need new brake pads.)

Does the car shudder after braking? Yes___            No___   (You may need new brake rotors.)

Doe the car rock back and forth repeatedly after a stop?     Yes___ No____   (This may indicate a need for new struts or shocks.)

Does the emergency brake stop the car?  ‘Hold’ the car on a hill? Yes___           No____

Yes, this car test drive checklist is long, but take your time.  You’ll be glad you did.


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