Buyers' Guide: The importance of a road test
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When buying a used car, a good road test will help determine if the car meets your needs. It gives you the opportunity to assess its general performance, interior comfort, and driveability, as well as highlight any areas of concern from engine noises through to interior rattles.
You don’t need to be a technical expert to determine if something just doesn’t seem right.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your road test.
From the driver’s perspective
Position your seat, steering wheel and mirrors to suit your driving position.
When you turn the ignition key or press the start button, check that the warning lights illuminate for a short time and then go out, that the car starts quickly and maintains a steady idle.
If it’s an older car, briefly rev the engine, turn around in your seat or have a helper look for smoke coming from the exhaust.
Blue smoke signifies oil being burned and sweet-smelling white smoke could be from coolant leaking inside the engine.
Before you take the car out on the road, familiarise yourself with all the ancillaries.
It’s worth testing the car’s features to ensure they’re working. Common items that tend to be missed include the air conditioning, radio and rear windows.
Finally, check to make sure the car’s Warrant of Fitness is current. Legally, sellers need to ensure that a car’s WoF is less than a month old at the time of sale.
The road test
Before you test drive the car, confirm with the seller that the car (and you) are insured to do so.
It’s always helpful to take someone with you as a passenger. General rattling noises, vibrations, and whining sounds are just some of the things that a passenger should be looking out for.
Also keep an eye on the gauges and instrument panel for any flashing or illuminated warning lights. If the oil pressure, water temperature or safety warning lights are on, these could lead to serious repairs.
Test the brake performance by applying the brakes during low and high speeds. Check for any shudders, grinding or rumbling noises. Continue to check for smoke during acceleration.
To get the most out of your road test make sure you drive at a variety of speeds and road surfaces where possible (motorway and urban). This might bring to light any issues unique to those situations.
Find a good spot to test the car’s manoeuvrability. Empty carparks are the perfect place for this. If you’re test driving a front or 4-wheel drive, turn the steering to full lock in both directions and listen out for any clicking noises as this could potentially be worn constant velocity (CV) joints.
Open the bonnet and step out of the car to check for any fluid leaks. Once the vehicle reaches its operating temperature, any large leaks should be visible. This is the perfect time to check for any overheating issues as well.
Keep an eye on the temperature gauge and wait for the cooling fans to come on. Most fans will start up after a few minutes and stop when the engine has been sufficiently cooled — this also happens when the air conditioning is switched on.
Knowledge is power
Armed with this knowledge, you will hopefully feel more confident in carrying out a road test and evaluating the car before you proceed with professional checks.
These checks should include purchasing a history check for cars already registered on the road in New Zealand and having an expert carry out a pre-purchase inspection, as not all issues are easily detected. These steps will all give you the reassurance you’re making a good car-purchasing decision.