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What to look for when test driving a used vehicle

March 18, 2024

Everybody wants the best bang for their buck – especially when buying a used car.

The Canadian Black Book is a valuable resource when determining the market value of a used vehicle. On average, a car should put in 20,000 kilometres per year. Any more than that should affect the price. There are additional online sites that can help you compare and figure out if what the seller wants is reasonable.

You’ll definitely want to know if the vehicle has been involved in an accident. For a fee, Carfax Canada, for example, will help you check for accident reports and to find out if there is a lien on the car and more. All you need is the Vehicle Information Number (VIN). The VIN only shows when it changed hands and in which country it happened. If you discover that owners have changed often, you should be wary of possible problems.

Dealerships also offer certified pre-owned vehicles. They have undergone multipoint inspections processes, must meet a certain age and mileage limits which varies by dealership and automaker. Private sellers aren’t held to such a high standard. That’s why it’s especially important for you to do your homework.

A test drive is an important part of your decision. It allows you to determine if the vehicle “feels” right and if there’s any warning signs that should make you walk away.

Tips for your test drive

This is your best opportunity to see if you like how the vehicle handles, its options and to spot any potential issues. There’s no shortage of advice but we’ve collected some tips experts suggest for you to consider:

  1. Decide what’s important – It’s good to know what your wants and needs are before the test drive. Do you need enough room for your family or gear? Do you want certain creature comforts or reliable handling in bad weather? Bring a list and keep track, especially if you’re comparing vehicles.
  2. Call ahead - recommends asking the seller to ensure the engine is cold, and hasn’t been pre-warmed ahead of your arrival. Sometimes, sellers will warm up a vehicle’s engine to conceal a sound or issue that’s more apparent at startup — including visible smoke from the tailpipes, or an unwanted rattle or knock when the engine is cold.
  3. Bring some tools – This includes a flashlight, tire tread-depth gauge and gloves. These will help you look under the hood and check fluids, assess tire life/wear and whether, for example, your smartphone will pair with the vehicle.
  4. Plan your route – Carfax Canada recommends trying the vehicle in different environments such as stop and go traffic, highway driving and smooth and bumpy road conditions to see how it reacts to each surface. Check for any strange noises or uncomfortable vibrations.
  5. Inspect the vehicle – This includes everything from taking a closer look at the exterior, interior, controls and accessories before you leave the lot. Test the car’s air conditioner first and then the heat to see how quickly it reaches maximum temperature. Look in the trunk and storage compartments. Check the lights work both inside and out.
  6. Look at the paint job - Canada Drives cautions the paint job can reveal hidden truths. They suggest comparing the panels for uniformity – if they don’t match the vehicle has probably been in an accident. Check for rust. It could be aesthetic but may reveal deeper issues. Frame rust could impact the vehicle’s integrity. If you see rust on the body or under the hood and undercarriage they could be further flags.
  7. Evaluate how the car feels – Drive it realistically. Try accelerating, decelerating, passing and merging. Does it have enough power? Does it upshift and downshift smoothly. Is there a humming, rattling or squealing noise that would annoy you? Is the steering wheel responsive or does it lag? Are there blindspots that make parking or changing lanes difficult?
  8. Try out the brakes – Go to a safe space where you can do both a hard and soft stop. Did the car pull to one side or did you have to push the pedal to the floor? Do they squeal?
  9. Don’t rush – A good test drive can take up to 30 minutes. You can test drive the same vehicle more than once as well as others to compare. And, you can always have your mechanic do a vehicle inspection.
  10. Investigate insurance - Contact your insurance broker to find out what the vehicle you’re interested in will cost to insure. Generally, used car insurance is less expensive because of the vehicle’s lower replacement value. If it is much older, you could save more by forgoing collision and comprehensive. If the vehicle is only a couple years old, however, you likely want more extensive coverage. Discuss options with your broker so you know the true cost of buying the used vehicle.


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