Before you buy any vehicle, use a checklist to see how it measures up. Too many buyers forget this critical step and end up driving a car with flaws that can't be overlooked. When you take the car for a test drive, bring this checklist along so you'll be sure to cover the key considerations.
- Visibility. Can you see the end of the hood and the trunk? Does any part of the car itself block your view of the road? Can you see all the mirrors without straining?
- Safety features. Check for manual or automatic seat belts, air bags (driver and passenger side), anti-lock brakes, and child safety locks.
- Steering wheel placement. Are you comfortable behind the wheel? Can you adjust the steering wheel, the seat and mirrors without breaking into a sweat?
- Entry and exit. Is it easy to get in and out of the car from each position (and don't forget those back seats)?
- Seating. Does each passenger have plenty of head and leg room? What about those rear seats?
- Safety-belt comfort and effectiveness. Fasten the safety belt in each position – it should fit snugly across your hips and the shoulder harnesses should ride comfortably across your shoulder.
- Dashboard and controls. While driving, can you quickly and easily check the speedometer and fuel gauge? How easy is it to work the windshield wipers, lights, turn signals, climate controls, and other functions?
- Trunk. Is there enough space in the trunk or cargo area? Is it easy to get to the spare tire?
- Engine. Does it accelerate smoothly? Does it have enough "passing power?" Make sure to slow down and speed up a few times to see how responsive the engine is. Does the engine idle smoothly or does it seem to race?
- Transmission. If the car is an automatic, does it shift smoothly between speeds? If it's manual, check the feel of the clutch and how easy it is to shift gears.
- Ride. Is the ride smooth? How responsive is the vehicle? How do you think it would handle serious curves, rain, snow, rocky terrain or other road conditions?
- Parking. Does the car maneuver easily into a parking space? Does the steering wheel turn easily? Even if you haven't done this in ages, try parallel parking -- does any part of the car block your view of the parking space?
- Braking. Take the car out to a stretch of empty road, accelerate to about 40 mph and make an emergency stop. Does the car stop in a straight line without pulling to one side? Do the brakes lock up?
- Steering and handling. When your grip is relaxed on the steering wheel, does the car drift? At highway speeds, does the steering wheel feel steady? How stable is the car when you turn corners?
- Noise levels. What's the noise level when the windows are closed? Listen for engine noises when accelerating; at lower speeds, listen for road noises and tire sounds. At highway speeds, listen for wind whistling outside the windows.
- Exterior. Is the car's finish glossy and even? Make sure the car's body panels are evenly aligned and the trim's not falling off.
The final steps
You picked out the car you liked, took it for a test drive and are about to buy it. Before signing a contract or shell out your hard earned cash, take a few minutes for a careful inspection:
- Eyeball the car's exterior for any damage, like "dings" or scratches.
- Make sure the spare tire and equipment are where they're supposed to be, and that the tire is inflated to manufacturer specifications (you can easily find this info in the "Owner's Manual," which should be in the glove compartment).
- Make sure any hubcaps or body moldings are in place.
- Make sure all electrical parts function properly.
- Check the Vehicle Identification Number on the car to ensure it matches the one on the contract (this is imprinted right on the dashboard – you can see it through the windshield, when you're outside the car).
- Ask the salesperson or previous owner to demonstrate each accessory -- like setting the clock or turning on the high-beams. Also, ask how to check the oil, coolant, transmission fluid, and battery (every car is a little different, so don't feel silly asking this one).