Saturday, March 14, 2015

Buying Used Cars, Part 2: The Test Drive

Test driving a Scion iQBy Michael Rentfro

In my last installment, we spoke about preplanning when buying a used car. If all the steps were followed, you should now have a pretty good idea of what you are going to spend, as well as what vehicles are offered in your price range. This is a great place to start, as you now have the hardest part complete. Well, this is the hardest part for me anyway, because I despise anything that has to do with banking (obviously, my wife is the family accountant) and there are so many cars I want to own that the mere act of choosing between them could cause my face to melt off. Now that your face is mush and you have a skull-splitting migraine from talking to your bank, it’s time to have some fun! That is exactly what phase two of the used car buying procedure should be: loads and loads “put ‘em through the paces” (safely and legally) fun! Grab yourself some driving gloves and a buddy, because now it’s time to kick some tires.

Once again, we have to start with some prospective before setting foot on a used car lot. Not every used car salesman is a greasy slime-ball out to buy a brand-spanking-used Rolex by swindling you out of far more money than you planned on spending like they are often portraying in movies. In fact, in over 20 trips to used lots in my life, I’ve never met a single greasy slime-ball salesman. Not one. If you ask for bottom dollar, they will give it to you. If you ask for oil changes for a year, they can work it out. If you ask then to have their mechanic look something over (although it never hurts to have a third-party mechanic do it), they will. Buying a used car in post-“cash for clunkers” America is much easier than because there are fewer good used cars than before, so naturally, the competition is much fiercer between dealerships. Much like any other retail business, dealerships have to concentrate more on customer service and other incentives to attract customers. This is evident in the genuine computer-signed form letter I received just this week offering to buy my Suzuki SX4 for “up to $500 over Kelly Blue Book” even if I didn’t buy my next car from them. (Yeah right, remember when I said no good business will intentionally lose money?)

Next, take your list of available cars for sale from the preplanning stage and narrow it down by geography, price point, color choice, and whatever other factors you consider important, and make yourself a nice little list of dealerships to visit. I choose to drive through these lots initially after hours or on Sundays (they don’t sell cars on Sundays in Indiana), so I can have an uninterrupted chance to physically scan over the car. This first impression can often rule out several cars and dealerships without even needing to talk to a salesperson.

Check exhaust pipe for sootBring a flashlight to look for fluid under the car. Since no one is there to move the car after hours, this would be a great time to see puddles made from leaking seals. Also look for imperfections and mismatched paint. This is a clear indication the car may have had body work in the past. Also check things like tire tread depth, cracked window seals, and any other sign of abuse. One final check I always perform before talking to salespeople is to inspect the exhaust tip. If it’s extremely black and sooty, it may be a sign of engine issues, and it wouldn’t hurt to have the car mechanically inspected before purchase.

After inspecting the vehicles you are interested in after hours, narrow your list further by ruling out the ones with obvious issues. Next, it’s time for the test drive. I have several personal rules regarding the test drive. First, I always take someone with me. It pays to have an extra set of eyes. I once passed on a bland white Nissan Versa with a hideous beige interior simply because when I asked what my wife thought of it, she replied “It’s ugly.” Good thing she was there, because I would have spent the next few years driving it with her ducked down into the passenger-side foot well to avoid being spotted in an ugly egg white car with an interior the color of human skin. An honest second set of eyes can help avoid purchasing a car you may not be happy with a year or two down the road.

Test driving a Mazda3

While on the test drive, be sure to take you time. I will scratch a car off my list if a salesman tries to hurry this process. In the small town I’m from, everyone knows, or is related to everyone else, so most dealerships there would allow me to take the car for the weekend before making my decision, however, most won’t in the much larger town I live in now. (Remember, dealerships only get paid if they make the sale, so it can’t hurt to ask.) If this is not an option, ask if you can take it for a few hours at least. Be sure to take the car to highway speed. If the car makes “clunking” sounds while accelerating or doesn’t track strait on the highway, this could be signs of costly suspension damage. Any vibrations or droning sounds on the highway could be a sign of tire issues. Either way, these issues become much more noticeable at highway speed.

Look under the hood for leaks and see if there are any odd smells.
Next, find a secluded parking lot to pull over when the car is at proper operating temperature. While idling, raise to hood to look closely for leaks (don’t forget your trusty flashlight), listen for knocking, squeaking, and pinging sounds, and take a good whiff (that’s right, I said to smell it!) of the engine bay. If it smells burned, or you get a distinct fuel smell, this could mean costly repairs down the road. Lastly, pull the dipstick and check the condition of the oil. If it’s black, dirty, gritty, smells funny, or has what appears to be water bubbles in it, it could mean more signs of impending damage to your wallet. Lastly, check the coolant overflow bottle to make sure it’s filled properly and shows no signs of overheating.

Lastly, do not forget to ask the salesman for a copy of the vehicle’s vehicle history report (Carmax or Autocheck, for example). This report will give you a detailed and accurate history of the vehicle. Major maintenance history, accidents, repossessions, and other pertinent information should be listed on this report. I make it a rule that if the dealer refuses to produce this report, then I will refuse to purchase the car. After all, nearly every dealership I have ever known of uses this very report when appraising your trade in. If they don’t produce one on request, there may be a reason.

Test driving a Kia Rio

Now that you’ve test driven the remaining cars on your list, you should have narrowed the field to a few solitary gems that pass your inspection. I like to have at least two vehicles in mind when moving to the negotiation phase. This way, I can force both dealerships into healthy competition for my business. Once again, after Cash for Clunkers and the auto industry bailout years ago, dealerships are far more inclined to compete than ever before. This puts the consumer at the advantage, so have some fun, drive some cars, and get ready for the dreaded negation …


Barry Traylor said...

Actually I personally had one of those awful salesman years ago when I was deciding what new car to buy. I had it narrowed down to 3 different makes one of which was the Mazda MX-3. He tried to pressure me into buying the car that day, long story short I walked off the lot and came back a week later to buy an MX-3. But I refused to deal with that man and said so in plain English. Sometime later when I brought it back for service I noticed he was no longer employed there. Even though I never forgot this jerk I loved that Mazda and kept it for 18 years.

Pecci said...

Loved the MX-3 and that tiny little V6.

Anyhow,This was a helpful, well written 2 part article.

Ducati Scotty said...

Good tips on going to see the cars after hours to avoid the sales pressure and taking a second set of eyes with you.

nlpnt said...

They must've changed the Versa beige interior color at some point; when I test drove one the interior struck me as being the color of store-brand vanilla ice cream.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately, the sales person really makes or breaks your decision on a new car. You don't want to have anything to do with them much less run through car financing options or call him back if something happens after the sale…