Gearing Down, Trading Up pt 3

Car shopping isn’t just about practicality. It’s a chance to drive cars that are completely impractical–cars you would never buy because they’re too expensive, or they’d never work well with your lifestyle, or for a thousand other reasons.

I took that opportunity, and took it in grand style, during my recent hunting season. I told you already about the Mini Cooper S–quintessentially British car made by BMW. Since it was so much fun to drive, and at this point in the hunt I hadn’t yet settled on acceptable makes and models, I thought it might be fun to indulge myself and my cohort a bit.

She has always loved the BMW Z3. Not just the looks, but the drive as well. It’s her self-described dream car. Even though they don’t make them anymore, and even though there was simply no way it would be practical (BMWs are expensive and unreliable, right?), there are a lot of them floating around the used market, so we found one nearby and took an evening jaunt to test drive it.

Fun? Yes! Slick? Yes!

But its younger brother sitting on the next lot gave it a serious run for its money–a Z4, which took the driving experience of the Z3 and pumped just a little bit of steroids and meth into the equation. On the first test drive, from a standing start I took a 35mph-rated cloverleaf at 90mph without breaking a sweat–this is a car that loves the ground and won’t leave it for any money.

At this point I realized I might have a problem. Because holy shit does that car drive like a dream. Worse still (from the point of view of my wallet) it sat right at the upper end of my price range, and it fit both me and She Who Must Not Be Named due partly to its nifty elevating seat design.

Still, no one in their right mind would buy one, right?

Unless, for example, you got home and looked up the two cars you’ve just test driven and discover that they’ve consistently garnered 4 and 5 star reliability ratings–and that they each have a healthy, vibrant mod culture associated with them. Then you found out that your driving record is so clean that your insurance company would happily cover you in an Aston Martin for not much more than you’re paying now. Then you might just go a little mad. You might even decide that they’re the right car for you.

At least, that’s what I did. First choice: the Z4. A little better than the Z3 for our requirements (meaning, better gas mileage and more cargo space), and they’re a current model, which has certain advantages. I noticed a very nice one at a local dealership, in my price range, and decided to check it out.

Checking Out A Car

When you’re checking out a specific car, block off a couple hours. Buying a car is right up there with selecting a partner and buying a house for big decisions–you’ll be living with the consequences for a long time. You’ll need the time. You’ll also need a sheet of paper.

On first approach, you do the inspection:

Go over the exterior and the interior with a fine-tooth comb for cosmetic flaws. Cosmetic flaws? Scratches in the paint? Corrosion? Pitting on the rims from brake dust? Cracked and aging upholstery? Stains in the carpet or molding? Mark them all down–they’re defects you’ll have to live with, and if you fix them, it’ll cost you money. Figure out how much it will cost to fix them–you’ll take this number into consideration when you make your offer.

With the cosmetics done, it’s time to move on to the mechanicals.


The undercarriage and suspension on a car are where it all starts–and they’re the place that can give you the most headache when it goes wrong. Engines are expensive to repair, maybe, but they’ve got nothing on a bent frame for danger posed to live and bank account.

The first order of business is to stand in front of the car, far back enough that you can see the front tires. Is the wear on the front two tires even? If it’s not, it could be an alignment problem, or brake troubles, or uneven suspension, or bad components in the steering. Make a note, and then have your mechanic take a close look at it to figure out what’s wrong (you do take prospective cars to your mechanic, right?).

Continuing with the tires, take your fingers and run them across the top of each tire, and compare the wear pattern across them. This is a more in-depth version of the former, and can show you problems on the inner edge that you might not be able to see without looking–it’ll also give you an idea of how much wear you’ve got left on the tires (and, thus, how long you’ll have to save for the next set).

While you’re at the tires, check the brakes. To do this, reach between the spokes and run your fingers over the rotor (the brake disc). [Do NOT do this on a car that’s just been driven–make sure it’s been standing for a half hour at least, otherwise you’re likely to burn your fingers! -ed.] You’re feeling for ridges and bumps across the surface. Deep grooves show a rotor that needs resurfacing. Deep grooves in multiple strata shows you a badly used rotor that’s already been resurfaced once. Rotors are a wear component, but if you’re getting deep grooves on a disc with under about 120k miles, you’re dealing with a car that’s been driven hard and will probably have other suspension and drive train issues–at the very least, it’s a car that’s not had its brake pads replaced on schedule, which could tip you off that the car hasn’t been well-maintained. (This advice applies only to cars with alloy wheels and disc brakes–on cars with hubcaps and/or drum brakes, you’ll have to do this on a mechanic’s rack by removing the wheels).

Next, it’s time to get under the car. Put it up on a rack if you can, or canter it up on a curb. Bring a dental mirror and a small flashlight to help you get a bead on things–you’ll need them. Under there, you’re gonna look for a number of things.

First, check the inside of the wheels, behind the brakes, for leaks in the wheel cylinders and at the joins on the calipers. Look for evidence of oily fluid everywhere around the wheel–there shouldn’t be any (except at the lube points, where it’s grease, not oil). If there is, there’s a problem with the brakes (usually a leak in the brake line or cylinder).

At the front wheels, on most cars you’ll find some crinkly rubber hoses covering vital parts of the steering linkage. These are your CVS booties, and they’re there to protect the car’s steering assembly joins from grit that can get in an foul the joints, wrecking the steering. Give these booties a feel–the rubber should be in good shape, but show signs of age commensurate with the age of the car. If it’s a used car, and the booties are new, it means they’ve been replaced–do not make an offer on the car until your mechanic has looked at this part specifically. Less-scrupulous dealerships will sometimes replace worn out booties to hide damage to the steering linkage beneath.

Now that you’ve dealt with the wheels, look at the rest of the car underneath–is the exhaust in good shape, or does it have rust eating at it? How about the floor pans? Is the catalytic converter in good shape? Are there aftermarket modifications to the exhaust that might make smog checks difficult? Are there any fluid leaks, or stains in the metal to indicate that there was a fluid leak that the dealer/owner has fixed? If so, trace the source of the leak, and add it to your notes.

Next, check the frame. The long structural beams down the sides of the car, the cross-braces that keep them together. Is there evidence of damage? Scorch marks form re-welding? Seams that are significantly less worn and weathered than the surrounding structure? What we’re looking for is evidence of frame damage–frame damage is expensive to repair, and if it’s been repaired it must be good quality work. Not all frame damage is created equal–dents coming up from the bottom (say, from where the car ran up on a curb) aren’t necessarily a problem. Lateral buckling is. There is a range between–make a note of any damage you find, and figure out if it’s something you can live with.

Now, crawl out from under the car and do the last frame check. Line up at the back of the car and look at all the seams in the bodywork. Are they even? Are all the gaps the same distance apart over the full length of the seam? They should be. If they’re not, you’ve got evidence of an accident that was either repaired badly, or that the owner didn’t consider severe enough to worry about. Make the same examination of both sides (how do the doors hang, are the rain rails straight, etc) and of the front end. Look particularly at the bumpers, and for crinkles in the paint at the bumpers. Note down any anomalies you find, and then (when you get to the test drive) keep your ears peeled for rattles from areas where you’ve found suspected frame damage.

Last thing for this post: Open the trunk. Check for mildew, for carpet aging. If the battery is in the back, check for corrosion on the terminals. Check for moisture in the spare tire cubby, condensation in the tail lights (it helps to do this check the morning after a rain, or after taking the car through a car wash) and to make sure all the tools are in the jack kit. Moisture in the trunk is a major pain in the ass, even more major if there are electrics back there. Make sure the seals are tight.

That’s a lot for one post. Next time I’ll go over the rest of the checklist, and tell you a bit more of the BMW odyssey.

Please post questions that you’d like addressed below, as well as comments on anything you think I might have missed.

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  1. Good summary Dan! Just one thing; I cringed when I read “reach between the spokes and run your fingers over the rotor” because I’ve burned myself on brake rotors. Your summary assumes that you find the car on a lot where it’s been sitting long enough for the parts to cool to ambient temperature. If the prospective buyer is meeting the seller somewhere as sometimes happens the brakes could be hot.

    But then again, maybe the rest of your readers aren’t dumb enough to poke their fingers through the spokes of a newly parked car, right? I’m not. Anymore.

  2. You’re quite right. I learned that one the hard way too — have amended the post. Thanks!

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