How to Test Drive a Used Car: The Ultimate 20-Step Inspection Guide

test drive used cars

How to test drive used cars is one of the most important questions any shopper evaluating vehicles at a dealership has. When considering a purchase, always insist on the opportunity to test drive used cars. Taking a used car for a thorough test drive is one of the most important steps before buying from a dealership. Without entirely putting the vehicle through its paces on the road, you may miss serious mechanical or functional issues that cost thousands.   

This ultimate guide covers everything you need to know before, during, and after a test drive at a used car dealership. Paying attention to all the details and sticking to these research-backed tips will help identify problems and give you further negotiating power if any issues arise. Let’s get started with our ultimate guide on how to test drive used cars!

Test Drive Used Cars: Why It Matters

The test drive of used cars goes beyond just “kicking the tires.” It’s your chance to experience how the used car actually functions on the road and evaluate its current condition. Rushing through a test drive of used cars or just driving around the block isn’t enough. You should aim to test drive for at least 15 minutes, and 30 minutes is ideal. Ensure you test drive used cars before making a purchase decision.

Here’s why properly test-driving a used car matters:

Conducting a thorough test drive is critical for evaluating a used car’s mechanical condition and function before purchase. Rushing test drive of used cars process risks expensive hidden issues appearing later.

used car test drive checklist

Checks Mechanical Functionality:   

Catching mechanical issues upfront before you buy can save you thousands down the road. Things like transmission, engine, brake, electrical, and other problems may arise during an entire test drive of used cars.  

Reveals Hidden Issues:   

Many problems don’t make themselves known when the car is stationary. Issues like alignment, suspension, steering, and exhaust problems manifest more during a drive.

Provides a Feel for the Car:   

See if it fits your preferences for handling, noise, comfort, etc. Check if the size and features fit your lifestyle.   

Before the Test Drive  

Do your due diligence before hopping into that used car for a test drive. Following these tips will prep you for assessing issues with a critical eye:

Research the Dealership’s Reputation  

It’s just as important to know the dealership’s reputation as the vehicle’s history if you want the best-used car buying experience. Search online reviews and check if there are unresolved customer complaints at places like the Better Business Bureau. Pay attention to reviews mentioning issues during test drives or mechanical problems appearing shortly after purchase due to inadequate inspections.   

For the optimal experience, seek out smaller, reputable dealers known for quality inspections and support, like AAA-approved lots. These best-used car dealers balance reasonable prices with rigorous inspections, limited selections, and high-quality vehicles customers rave about.

Carfect: The Best Used Car Dealer in Chicago  

If you live in the Chicagoland area, one great choice for the optimal used car buying experience is Carfect. Our family-owned dealer located in Chicago prides itself on quality, value, and customer service. For over 30 years, Carfect has focused exclusively on providing the best-used vehicles in Chicago. We are a BBB-accredited small business, maintaining an A+ rating.   

Our rigorous inspection and certification process sets Carfect apart as the premier used car dealer in Chicago. Going far beyond the basic inspection, every pre-owned vehicle on their lot undergoes an exhaustive mechanical and cosmetic assessment by ASE master technicians. It gives buyers incredible confidence in finding only the highest quality and reliable used cars in Chicago at fair market prices.

Existing customers continually praise their low-pressure, educational approach during the buying journey. From online research to test drives and final purchase details, the Carfect used car dealerships Chicago IL, staff emphasizes transparency in sharing their meticulous evaluation findings to build trust. 

Thoroughly Inspect the Vehicle Inside and Out  

Give the car a good look-over for damage, paint imperfections, mismatched body panels, etc. Peer through the glass for interior stains or damage. Ensure features/options match what’s advertised. Turn signals, lights, wipers, and electronics should function properly.   

Review the Vehicle History Report

Ask for it if not provided. Look for accidents, number of previous owners, and routine maintenance done—Cross-reference with the dealer’s thorough inspection report.

Ask About the Vehicle’s History

Inquire why the previous owner sold it. Has it been routine dealer maintenance or owner worked on? Where did they drive it most? Any major repairs?

Ensure Proper Licensing for Test Drive   

To cover their liability, dealers require copies of licenses, insurance cards, and often a tiny deposit before releasing the keys. Comply to be fully covered during your drive.

Adjust Settings to Your Comfort

Test drive used cars to evaluate the comfort and ergonomics of the seats and driving position. Changing the driver’s seat position, steering column tilt, mirror angles, and climate controls to your preference allows for a better experience and better identification of issues.

During the Test Drive

Now comes the most critical part – actually driving the used car. Going beyond a quick spin around the block provides more insight into mechanical issues, fit, and comfort. If possible, test drive user cars during both daytime and nighttime to assess visibility and lighting.

Keep the Radio/Music Off

Driving with the radio blaring can hide subtle noises indicating issues. You have to carefully test drive used cars to listen for any unusual noises or vibrations. Listen closely for odd sounds from the engine, transmission, brakes, and suspension.

Test Various Road Conditions   

Try to test drive used cars on different road conditions, such as highways, city streets, and bumpy roads. As you drive, vary terrain by including hills, rough roads, curves, and highway speeds to simulate real-world conditions. See how the transmission shifts and listen for concerning noises when accelerating or braking. In addition, test drive used cars to experiment with different driving modes or settings, if applicable.

Get up to Highway Speeds

Driving at faster speeds tests engine performance, listening for odd vibrations or noises. Evaluate cabin comfort and wind noise at 60+ mph.

Check the Steering

See if the steering wheel vibrates or pulls to one side when braking. This can indicate suspension, tie rod, or alignment issues. There should be minimal wandering at highway speeds.

Test Brakes

Properly testing brake function in various driving scenarios is vital during a used car test drive. Pay attention to odd noises, such as pulling, vibration, or lack of responsiveness, which could indicate issues. 

Be sure to test the brakes a few different ways during the drive:  

  • Hard stops at various speeds – listen for odd noises, pulling to one side  
  • Downhill braking – brakes should stop evenly without switching directions suddenly   
  • Checking brake fade by applying continuous brakes for 30 seconds ensures no leaks in lines

Testing Transmission

Carefully evaluating transmission performance by accelerating and shifting through all gears helps identify problems. Listen and feel for slipping jerky shifts, or abnormal vibrations. 

Carefully run through all gears, listening for slipping or odd shifts:    

  • Accelerate moderately in lower gears  
  • Accelerate hard from a stop in higher gear to check for slips    
  • Come to a gradual stop, check downshifts happen smoothly  
  • Park vehicle, feel for odd vibrations indicating issues   

Testing Electronic Features and Functions  

 Switch on and test every electrical item like lights, stereo, power windows/locks, camera, and safety sensors under different driving conditions. Verify proper operation.

If possible, experience these features during varying driving conditions:

  • Lights – high/low beams, fog lights, turn signals    
  • Technology – stereo, navigation, camera, blind spot detection  
  • Power accessories – windows, locks, mirrors, sunroof  
  • Climate system – test heating, cooling, and fan speeds

Monitor Warning Lights on the Dash

The check engine and other warning symbols appearing could indicate problems needing repair before purchase. Discuss concerns with the dealer immediately.

How Does it Feel to You?

Test drive used cars to check suspension. See if it absorbs bumps and potholes properly. Beyond mechanical issues, gauging comfort and convenience will improve the ownership experience:  

  • How is acceleration responsiveness? Braking comfort?
  • Do bumps and uneven pavement jar the cabin severely?
  • Is road/wind noise bothersome at highway speeds?  
  • Are seat comfort, visibility, and cabin storage adequate? 

After the Test Drive

A used car showing no obvious flaws during the initial test drive still requires further inspection once the engine is warmed up.

Re-Inspect The Vehicle

Once parked, give all systems a second look-over now that the engine is hot. Recheck fluid levels, leaks, and any new noises present at operating temperature.

Get it on a Lift

Request the dealer to examine the vehicle on a lift following the drive thoroughly. This shows the entire underside, revealing leaks, rust, damage, and worn components.

Discuss Any Problems Noticed

Bring up your test drive observations with the dealer. Be honest about issues concerning rides, noises, pulls, warning lights, etc. Gauge their response and willingness to diagnose problems.

Trust Your Instincts

Don’t feel pressured to buy a used car because issues seem minor or the dealer promises to repair them later. Vet any problems diligently before signing the paperwork.

Bring Along Friends or Family During the Test Drive  

Test driving with only the salesperson can make it challenging to assess the vehicle objectively. Bring your significant other, family, or friends to provide additional perspectives. Having others help evaluate the car can reveal insights you may overlook in the excitement of a potential new purchase.

Things for them to provide input on:  

  • Overall comfort and space – Is there enough room for passengers or tight fits? Do larger friends/family fit reasonably well?  
  • Visibility – Are there blind spots or areas hampered by poor vantage points that could create safety issues? Shorter passengers may struggle to see clearly.  
  • Noise levels – Get opinions from the back seat on whether road noise or engine sounds are intrusive  
  • Appearance and initial impressions – Multiple preferences may differ on the exterior look or style as well as interior aesthetics  
  • Functionality of features – Their usage and experience trying out electronics, storage spaces, or climate functions may cause concerns.  

While you may love how a car looks and drives, listening to objective feedback from people you trust who have your best interests in mind is wise. Don’t hesitate to have them join the test drive so any problem areas get identified upfront before purchase. Their insights could reveal oversights and prevent later frustration. During a test drive, two or three additional sets of eyes and ears make sense.  

What if Issues Are Found?

In an ideal world, the test drive goes flawlessly, confirming expectations from online research and inspection. More often, though, a thorough drive coupled with lift inspection reveals some problems needing addressing. As a buyer, you have leverage in negotiating here before buying the vehicle.

Don’t Ignore Red Flags

Major issues like engine troubles, oil leaks, or heavily worn brakes are red flags. Either negotiate a significant discount on the asking price to account for repair costs or pass on the vehicle. Rushing into a purchase and ignoring problems often leads to regret and extra costs.


The key theme throughout this guide on how to test drive used cars underscores properly evaluating any used vehicle inside and out before purchase, especially during an extensive test drive. Test drive used cars to assess their performance, handling, and overall condition. Rushing this process or just doing a quick spin around the block opens the possibility of buying someone else’s problems. Don’t skip checking every feature and function or listening closely for odd noises when road testing. 

Arm yourself with the thorough tips outlined here before heading to the dealership. Diligently apply them during the search process to gain more confidence in identifying issues and negotiating leverage if anything needing repair arises. These steps reduce the chances of post-purchase headaches and costly fixes related to the used car.

The time invested upfront test driving carefully far outweighs the alternative of problematic vehicles and potentially thousands lost in repairs. And knowing what to look for now, you can shop used car dealers confidently. Use this guide as a checklist to make any visit to the dealership a smooth, informed experience. Here’s to your next used car, exceeding expectations and serving faithfully for years!


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