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The KwikGuide to
Buying a used car
Section 1: The Search
what to look for
check the costs
where to look
where to buyarranging to viewSection 2: The Car

oily bits
test driving
Section 3: The Dealhagglingarranging to payI've been conned!
useful links
Kwik checklist
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Buying a used car

test driving a car

If you're still interested in the car after checking it over, ask to take it for a spin. This is an essential part of the process - many problems will only be evident when on the move.

But first, think if you are insured to drive a car not belonging to you. Have you checked? Dealers will use trade plates to insure you, but if you're buying privately you must be insured. Also check that the car's roadworthy - it must
have tax and MOT.

KwikTip: always get a car insurance quote from Direct Line too,
as they don't take part in the price comparison websites.

It's very important that you drive - it's essential to get a feel for the car and
to detect any problems. Plan to spend at least 20 minutes behind the wheel to allow enough time to check the engine's cooling system and performance.

Comfort: make sure that you can get into a comfortable driving position, you
can reach all pedals and controls without straining and the displays are easy
to see. Some seats fit some people better than others - ensure this car suits
you. Check visibility - can you easily see all around you?

Dash lights: first only turn the key far enough to make the dash lights come
on. Check they all come on or flash and all the gauge needles move. If they
don't, a bulb could have blown or even been removed to prevent a buyer being alerted to a problem.

Starting: have a friend stand to the rear of the car with a view of the exhaust
pipe to watch when you start. This is most effective when starting from cold.
Thin white mist at starting is only moisture burning off. But if dark blue or black smoke comes out on starting or, worse, every time you rev the engine, oil is getting where it shouldn't in the depths of the engine. Walk away immediately.

How well does the car start? If it needs a couple of tries to get going then it
at least needs some minor work on its engine electrics. If the starter motor
sounds at all sluggish, the problem could just be a low battery or it could be the motor itself. Does it keep running smoothly once started?

Also check the dash lights all go out once the engine's running. Lights staying
on are normally bad news.

Electrics: now test the toys. Let the engine idle and methodically test every switch, button and lever. Stereo: test the radio reception and try loading,
playing and ejecting a CD or tape. Heater: turn it on full blast and see how hot
it gets and how quickly, and also that it blows cold. Move the levers to check
the air vents move and feel to check the air is coming out where it is supposed
to. Check the windscreen demist function in particular. Air Con: turn it on at
cold with the fan set at medium speed. A healthy air conditioning system
should produce noticeably cold air within a few minutes. Keep it running while
you road test the car. Be wary if the air turns from cold to warm and stays that way. While the problem might well be minor, it could mean a hefty repair bill in
the near future. Seat heaters: turn them on and check they warm up.

Steering: before moving off, turn the wheel right and left. Is the power steering operating smoothly? Can you hear any groans from the power steering motor?
You should feel almost no play in the wheel before the tyres start to turn.

Once underway, the car should respond quickly and neatly without lots of
steering wheel motion. At normal speed, the car should maintain direction
without constant steering corrections. If the wheel vibrates at speeds over
40mph, there could be a problem with the tyre balance or wheel alignment,
which is easily fixed, or the suspension, which may not be. Look for tell-tale
signs of causes of suspension damage like dents in wheel rims. Likewise, if
the car constantly drifts to one side, it could just be that a tyre is underinflated,
or a more serious suspension problem.

At some point, pull the car into a car park or similar open space and drive the
car slowly around in a circle, with the wheels at maximum lock, in both
directions. Listen for any clonking, banging or knocking from the front or
through the steering wheel.

Engine: it should idle smoothly without surging or spluttering and accelerate
from standstill without bucking or hesitating. When you accelerate up a hill, you shouldn't hear any pinging or clunking. Once warmed up, visible smoke from the exhaust when you rev it means the engine's tired, especially if it's blue-tinged in colour.

Clutch: if there isn't at least an inch of play at the top of the pedal's travel, the
car may soon need a new clutch. Do the 4th gear test: put it in 4th and try to
pull away. The car should stall. If it doesn't, the clutch is worn. When travelling
at about 40mph in 4th, accelerate hard to see if the clutch slips. Does
acceleration match the revs?

Gearbox: with an automatic box, don't confuse smoothless with slippage.
When you accelerate there should be no hesitation between the engine's acceleration and the car's. If there is, it's a sure sign of wear and expensive to
fix. When changing between automatic gears, reverse to drive for example, the
car shouldn't jerk and there should be no clunking or heavy noises. Don't forget
to check the kickdown works.

With a manual gearbox, there should be no grinding of gears or difficulty getting the car into gear with the pedal fully pressed. If the car jumps out of gear at any time, walk away, because there'll soon be big bills.

Brakes: find an empy stretch of road and test the brakes. Remember to warn
your passengers! From a speed of around 45mph, apply the brakes hard. The
car should stop straight and quickly, without vibration or pulling to one side. The pedal feel should be smooth and stopping the car shouldn't take huge effort. If
the car needs heavy pressure on the brake, if not a fluid leak it could mean a
faulty brake servo. Another expensive repair.

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) will transmit a rapid pulsing feel through the pedal when you push hard. You may need to find a wet piece of road to test the ABS

Try two or three stops - the car should stop straight an easily each time. Then
pull into a safe area, stop, and step firmly on the brake pedal for 30 seconds. If
the pedal feels spongy or sinks to the floor, there may be a fluid leak in the
braking system.

Look, listen & feel: at a steady speed on a smooth road, note any vibrations.
You shouldn't feel any shuddering through the steering wheel, dashboard
vibrations or see shaking mirrors. Try also to find a bumpy stretch of road - you
are looking for a well-controlled and quiet ride. If the car bounces and hops a lot
on routine bumps, it may mean the car needs new shock absorbers. Listen for a constant humming noise which becomes more noticeable at a particular speed. That could mean expensive new wheel bearings.

Watch the gauges: keep an eye on the fuel, temperature and oil pressure gauges. Are they working? Are they reading normal levels? Watch the
mileometer - is it turning? Do any warning lights come on while you're driving?

Let the owner drive you back: take this time to concentrate more on what
you hear - rattles, squeaks and vibrations. They're annoying to live with and
difficult to track down and fix.

Drips & leaks: when you park again, let the car idle for a bit and check it idles smoothly and doesn't overheat. Listen for the electric fan cutting in to cool it

Take another look underneath at the front. Don't be alarmed if you see some
water drips on a hot day. A bad sign would be any oily, green or pink drips or
leaks falling onto the road. Is there any smoke coming from the exhaust?

If you have a successful test drive, next look over the car's paperwork
and service records - click below.

Next page:
checking a car's paperwork >>


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