How to Test Drive a Car: 5 Things to Look For

Channel your inner mechanic when shopping for a used car.

Man looks at car in lotManuel Carrillo III/Capital One

Article QuickTakes:

Test-driving a used car can seem daunting. You don’t necessarily know its history, and you may have limited time to walk around the vehicle before taking it for a drive.

This quick guide on what to look for when test-driving a used car can help save you money — not to mention a lot of hassle — by helping you determine whether the used car you’re test-driving is a good buy.

1. A Quick Start, No Matter What

If possible, you’ll want to perform both a “cold” start and a “hot” start with the vehicle. No, those aren’t scientific terms: they simply refer to the engine’s operating temperature.

An engine that takes a long time to start when cold can indicate a failing starter or battery, either of which can cost upward of $100 to replace. A hot engine should start just as quickly, but one that’s slow to turn over may be experiencing the same issues or even a faulty coolant sensor.

2. Minimal Engine Noise and Vibration at Idle

Modern car engines should idle smoothly, with little rumble or vibration entering the cabin. Additionally, the engine’s idle should be consistent, with no “lumpiness.” The best test for engine smoothness is to sit in the car for a minute or two while watching the tachometer — that’s the instrument that measures the engine’s revolutions per minute, or RPMs. The tachometer should be steady, typically between 600 and 1,000 RPM.

Shifting an automatic transmission from park to reverse or drive should result in little discernible change in vibration.

A rough idle may be caused by many issues, including worn engine or transmission mounts, spark plugs needing replacement, or a vacuum leak. While typically inexpensive, these parts can take hours for a shop to replace.

3. A Steady Steering Wheel

The steering wheel should point straight ahead with no side-to-side shimmy or clunks.

Some steering maladies can be easy to fix, such as a $100-or-so alignment or a wheel re-balancing. Unfortunately, they can also point to underlying suspension, frame, or wheel damages caused by prior collisions.

4. Buttons and Knobs That Do Their Jobs

Even the most basic cars have all sorts of buttons, levers, and knobs that are assigned a function. Test them all, from the windows and mirrors to the sunroof, audio system, and climate control.

Electrical maladies can add up quickly, and some can be difficult (and expensive) for a mechanic to diagnose and repair. A quick skim of the vehicle’s owner’s manual may help determine how a feature functions. An inoperative rear-window switch may be due to a child lock activated on the driver’s door panel, for instance.

5. A Comfortable, Easy Test Drive

Even if the car’s condition checks out, determine if you are comfortable and confident behind the wheel — this might be the most important thing to look for when test-driving a used car. Be sure to take the time to adjust the seat, steering wheel, and mirrors so that your outward vision is unobstructed. Can you easily reach climate and audio controls? Can you swing it into a typical parking spot and then back it out?

If all of these checks add up to your satisfaction, it may be a great used car for you.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.