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Car Clinic - Buying Your Car

The Test Drive

This is where the crunch comes. The next half hour or so will decide whether you spend the biggest single amount of cash you’ll put to anything, except (if you’re fortunate) buying a home.

So it’s doubly important to take your time and to keep a cool head. From the off, we’d say, never buy any car without having driven it first.

And don’t settle for a quick spin around the block. You need to drive for half an hour, minimum and cover a variety of roads, from city streets to open through-routes.

Before you test-drive, ask whether the seller’s insurance covers you. If it does, sit in and get comfortable. Take time to adjust the seat, wheel and mirrors every which way until all are just so. Don’t forget to set the seat belt height, if the car will let you do this.

Comfortable car

Are you comfy?

Check to ensure that you can reach the controls comfortably and set the heating and air con as you like it.

Next, start the car. It should fire up readily from cold and run smoothly. Get out , listen to the exhaust for noise from leaks and check the pipe for black smoke. A little pale ‘smoke’ on a cold day is probably just water vapour, which is okay.

If you have a friend or relative with you, ask if they’ll sit in the back, to listen for clonks (indicating worn suspension or a loose exhaust) or whining (from knackered wheel bearings).


Spotting problems

Drive using all the gears, including reverse, and notice where along its pedal travel the clutch ‘bites’. If it is close to the top, it may need replacing soon. The gears should shift smoothly, silently and easily.

With the car in second gear and on a slight hill, accelerate hard. If the engine speed rises faster than the car responds, the clutch is slipping. It will need adjusting or, probably, replacing.

Also, as you do this, watch the mirrors for a puff of smoke from the exhaust. This will signal that the engine is worn and requires attention.

Watch the temperature gauge (if one is fitted) for overheating and ensure that the speedo, Rev counter (if present) and other gauges work, along with the trip and total mileage recorder.

We’d advise keeping the radio/stereo off during the test, but switch it on momentarily to ensure that it picks up a clear signal, without crackle or distortion.



Be a passenger, too

If the seller accompanies you, ask them to drive for a few minutes. A short while spent as a passenger helps you to tune into the car’s comfort and also notice any worrying noises.

At the end of the trip, take another quick look under the bonnet and under the car to check for fluid leaks. Take a torch along to help with this. Also, peer under the war to spot any leaks.

Leave the engine running and listen for the electric cooling fan, which should cut in and run once the car is stationary for a while. As you’re waiting for this to happen, take a rag, ball it up and hold it momentarily over the exhaust pipe, taking care not to touch where it’s hot.

This will cause pressure to build in the pipe and expose any leaks it might have.

Second opinion

Second opinions count

Check with your companion: are they happy or did they notice anything you didn’t?

Sit back in the car, and check that every control and switch works. Be methodical and start at one site of the cabin, working across to the other. Don’t forget interior lights, including any reading lamps for rear passengers.

Ensure that wipers front and rear sweep cleanly and silently and that the washer jets pump water.

Turn the car off, wait a moment then switch the ignition on, checking that all the correct warning lamps come on. If the car has an indicator to say how many miles remain before the next service, note its total and see if that tallies with the car’s service history.

Look to see, too, that the seat adjustment controls for driver and passengers operate. If the rear seats fold, tug them out of position to check that the mechanisms function.

If all’s good, take a few moments to think. Is there anything else you needed to ask, or check?

If something’s not 100%, it may not be a deal-breaker, so long as the buyer is prepared to adjust the price to cover a fault. Don’t fall for the argument that he or she knew that the window/mirror/radio was faulty and had set the price to account for this. Any faults not declared upfront mean money off.

A quick call to the dealership should establish the likely cost of a repair – and it’s only fair that you add a little extra for your trouble.


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