Buying a used car is like a box of chocolates…
You never know what you’re gonna get… Unless you know what to look for on a test drive.
Picture this: after spending over 12+ hours researching and proving statistics true, you’re ready to come in for a test drive.
According to Cox Automotive, more than half of all shoppers buy the first car they take for a spin. But just because over 50% of people are doing it doesn’t mean you should.
Here’s what we mean:
If you’re ready to take a test drive, you’re probably pretty confident that you’re not going in this thing blind. But unfortunately, friend, you are.
Because something happens when you step into the dealership. You’re not looking at the market at large anymore; It becomes more than reliable ratings, glowing reviews, and resale values. Now that you’ve rummaged through the weeds, the one question remains: What is the exact condition of the vehicle you’re looking at?
Answer us this: Do the clothes look better on the mannequin than on you?
Even the most confident among us can generally agree that yes, the mannequin pulls off the look better than you. And the same goes for vehicles on sparkly show floors and lovely lots. Now, when it comes to new cars, you basically know what you’re getting into. But when it comes to buying a used vehicle… well, that’s more like a box of chocolates… Forrest Gump, help us out.
What you may know to look for is that tag that says “Certified Pre-Owned”. What does it mean exactly? In order to receive certified status, every used vehicle is run through a 150+ point inspection. This covers everything from records and paperwork, to mechanicals, systems and overall appearance. While programs vary from automaker to automaker, all CPO inspections and certifications are designed to ensure that the vehicles represent the best pre-owned cars, trucks, and SUVs that you can buy. It’s all about the buyer’s peace of mind.
At Apple Autos, we believe you have the right to know exactly what you’re getting into when you buy a used car. That’s why we label every used car on our lot — not only the certified pre-owned models.
The Moment of Truth
A good test drive isn’t only a drive. In fact — boring as this may sound — the process starts at the salesperson’s desk.
- Ask to see the reconditioning paperwork. That’s the list of stuff that the dealership did to the vehicle after they purchased it. Why does it matter? First, because it gives you a list of things to look for and pay attention to when you drive. Does the new suspension feel squishy? Are the brakes too grabby? It’s even more worrying if a dealership doesn’t have any service records at all. At a minimum there should have been a basic oil change with lube and filter replacement. “Some dealers just don’t inspect their cars,” says Ryan Huffman, general manager of Apple Ford Shakopee. “They literally take a trade-in, run it through the car wash, and put it on the lot.” That’s not a trade-in you want to buy.
- Ask to see the vehicle history report. Tools like AutoCheck or CarFax are a must-see before purchase. “That will tell you if the car’s been in any accidents,” Huffman says. “Minor fender-benders may be no big deal, but if it’s something big that required a tow truck, you might want to reconsider.”
- Check the tires. People often fail to look at the tread on a used car’s tires. That’s a huge mistake. If you have to replace the tires in a few thousand miles, it’s like adding $700 or more to the price of the vehicle. You don’t need to be an expert to check tire wear. Use the penny test, where you place a one cent piece in the grooves of the tire tread. If you can see most or all of Abe Lincoln’s head, the tires don’t have a ton of life left.
- Examine the windows. Make sure there are no cracks.
- Check the body panels too. Look for signs of rust, scratches and dings, or places where touch-up paint was applied. The less, the better.
- Open and close every door. A couple of reasons why. The first is safety. if the doors don’t open and close smoothly, it could indicate frame damage occured at some point or another. (This should have shown up in the CarFax, but the reports aren’t always 100% accurate.) Second, you’ll want to notice how easy it would be to get in and out of the vehicle from all angles. Don’t just look at what it’s like to get in and out of the driver’s seat. You’ll want to see how it feels to be a passenger, which your friends (or children) will be.
- Pull out your measuring tape. Many of today’s cars, trucks and SUVs are bigger than ever. Those dimensions may not be compatible with your garage.
Before the test drive
- Load in any special cargo. If there’s anything in particular you plan on keeping in the car, bring it with you to the dealership so you can test it out. “Maybe you have a big family and you need three car seats,” Huffman says. “A lot of cars won’t fit those. You have to put them in to see if there’s room.” Similarly, maybe you plan on hauling tools, a bicycle, or golf clubs. Now’s your chance to see how easily everything packs in and out.
- Test the lights and mechanical features. Before you’re on the road, roll the windows down and back up. If it’s a pickup, drop and lower the gate. If it’s a convertible, drop and raise the top. Open and close the sunroof, buckle and unbuckle the seatbelts, adjust the side- and rear-view mirrors. Then flip on the headlights, taillights, and turn signals. Check the dome light. Make sure everything’s moving and turning on smoothly. If something is broken, ask if it can be fixed.
- Check the A/C and heating too. Even if you’re shopping during the hottest part of summer or the coldest part of winter, you’ll want to flip on the heat and air conditioning. See how long it takes for the desired to come out of the registers. A long delay could indicate an issue.
- Ask for a technology tour. If you’re new to the car buying market after several years, even used cars may have new features you don’t recognize. Technology like rain-sensing wipers, automatic cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring can be confusing the first time you use them. Have the sales consultant show you how everything works. If there’s a mysterious dashboard button, ask about it. If you plan on connecting your phone to Bluetooth, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, make sure they walk you through the process.
- Start up the car and do this. Before you set out on the drive, have the salesperson turn on the car. Then pop the hood and listen for any rattling, ticking, or anything else that just sounds “off.” You don’t have to know what every single noise means. You just have to notice it. It’s the car salesman’s job to explain it to you. Then, if they say it’s no big deal, you use your BS-detector to determine if they’re telling it to you straight.
Behind the wheel
- Assess the driver’s seat. Notice how the seat itself feels. Are you comfortable? You could be spending a lot of time there, so this matters a whole lot.
- Check your view inside and out. Notice the car’s gauges. Are they easy to see and read? Also pay attention to any blind spots. Are they significant? If so, are there cameras that cover the area?
- Drive at varying speeds in varying situations. Don’t limit your drive to stop-and-go city traffic. Take it out on the highway to see how it rides at 60 or 70 mph and then navigate to gravel or otherwise bumpy roads to feel out the suspension. If you’re from the area, stick to roads you know, says Huffman, so you have some basis of comparisons. If not, plot your drive ahead of time, so the sales consultant doesn’t keep you on smooth pavement.
- Check the brakes. Be sure to give the salesperson riding with you a heads up before you do this. And don’t do it in any situation that could be risky. But you’ll want to see how well the car slows down. The car should decelerate smoothly. If the car vibrates, or you hear a squealing sound, it could indicate that the brakes need to be replaced — or have been replaced with sub-standard parts.
- Ask about the gas. Some cars require higher octane fuel than others. If you don’t want to pay a premium at the pump, you need to know this.
- Also find out: What are the terms of the warranty? A quick way to cut to the heart of the matter is to simply ask, “What doesn’t it cover,” says Apple Ford Lincoln finance manager Toby Hewitt. “If the warranty covers everything but wear and tear and basic maintenance, perfect. You’ve got a great warranty.” If the dealership offers you an extended service contract, here’s how to assess whether or not that’s a good idea.
- Ask to take the vehicle to your own mechanic. Yes, this article gives you a lot of what you need in order to test drive like a pro, it’s always to get a second opinion. And if the salesperson says “no,” for some reason, that’s a clear red flag. Time to move on.
- See if you can spend the night with the vehicle. Buying a car is a big investment, which is why we offer extended test drives. “Customers can take the vehicle home for a day or weekend at no charge,” says Huffman. “They can put miles on it, run errands, take the kids places—whatever they need to feel confident in their decision.” See if the dealership will give you the chance to truly get to know the vehicle.