As always, use caution when driving an unfamiliar car, truck, van or SUV.
Drive the automobile for as long as it takes for you to get a good feel for how it runs and drives. If possible, take the automobile on the roads you drive regularly. These roads, with their bumps and turns, are most familiar to you. Make sure you drive over rough roads and take it on the freeway or highway to see how it drives at higher speeds. Try stopping from both high and low speeds. Make sure you drive it in reverse and make left and right turns. If possible, take it on some hills. If you notice any problems, stop if you can and take notes.
The owner knows the most about the automobile. If you are buying the automobile from the owner, listen to the information that is offered about the automobile. If any problems are described, it's usually safe to assume it is worse than described. If the owner describes recent repairs, assume the repairs were done cheaply, at a minimal expense to the owner. Don't be afraid to ask for the receipts.
There are two ways to check if the frame was damaged by a collision. Use a garden hose, or go to a self-serve car wash to wet the tires. Drive in a straight line for about two car lengths. Get out of the automobile and check the lines made by the tires. There should be two straight lines, not four.
The other way to check for a bent frame is to have a friend drive behind you to see if the automobile appears to be traveling in a straight line.
The automobile should have relatively good pickup without stumbling or hesitating. A light pinging noise during a fast acceleration can be expected in some automobiles but if there is knocking, clattering, persistent pinging, or any other unusual noise, major repairs may be in order.
The steering wheel should not be off center. This indicates that the last wheel alignment was not performed carefully. Make some turns with the wheels all the way to the left and right. The best test is to make a series of tight figure-8 turns on an empty parking lot.
Whether traveling straight or making turns, there should be sure control with no looseness (free play), noise or vibration at any speed. The automobile should drive straight and not wander.
Hit bumps at different speeds. The automobile should not bounce (weak shocks). There shouldn't be any clunks, squeaks, rattles or any other noise. On front-wheel-drive automobiles, find an empty parking lot and make some tight figure-8 turns with the windows open. Listen for any noises such as clunks, pops, clicks, etc.. The suspensions on front-wheel-drive automobiles are expensive to repair.
Try stopping from both high and low speeds. The brakes should be responsive and firm. There should be no pulsating or “spongy” feel to the brakes. There shouldn't be any noise (grinding or squeaking etc.) or pulling to the side when applying the brakes. The brakes should not go all the way to the floorboard. There should be enough room to put your toes under the pedal when the brakes are applied.
Most automobiles have Antilock Braking Systems (ABS). When the brake is applied forcefully, drivers may experience a rapid pulsation of the brake pedal--almost as if the brakes are pushing back at you. Sometimes the pedal could suddenly drop. Also, the valves in the ABS controller may make a noise that sounds like grinding or buzzing or clicking. In some cars you may feel a slight vibration. Any of these events can be normal for ABS.
To test the holding power of the emergency brakes, put the emergency brakes on, put the automobile in a forward gear and slowly try to drive off. Be careful not to over do this test in an automobile with a manual transmission, you may burn the clutch. You may have to buy the seller a new one.
Automobiles which automatically disengage the emergency brakes when put in gear will have to be taken to a steep hill and parked in neutral.
Write down any unusual odors such as gasoline or burning.
Make sure to drive in all gears including reverse. Shifting should be quick, easy and smooth. There should be no grinding or chattering. There should be about 1 – 1 ½ inches of free play (pressing the pedal) before the clutch disengages. With the engine and parking brake on, slowly release the clutch pedal. The engine should begin to stall one-half to three-quarters of the way up. As soon as the engine begins to stall, press the pedal to the floor so you don't burn the clutch.
Make sure to drive in all gears (low, 1st, 2nd, Drive, Reverse). While operating the automobile in “D” (Drive), the gear changes should be quick and smooth. There should be no noise, hesitation or slippage.
Added devices such as cruises control, turbo of superchargers, etc..