Continuing on from last time, we’re going over the things to look at when buying a car…

Now we’ve done the undercarriage–though I can’t help feeling like I overlooked something important. Fear not, I’ll mention it if it occurs to me–and we’re on to the rest of the checklist.

The Engine

Pop the hood and look in the engine compartment. If you’re at a dealership, it should be clean as a whistle in here–every dealer worth his salt will have the engine scrubbed and spit-polished to within an inch of its life. It’s a nice touch, cosmetically it’s beautiful, but it can also hide some tell-tales that you’ll want to pay attention to.

First, check the hoses. Hoses should be supple, not cracked. They should be well-fitted to their ports, not overtightened and bulging. They should be even in thickness down their entire length.

Also examine vacuum and hydraulic lines–these are the metal “hoses,” for lack of a better term. Run your fingers around and along all of them that you can possibly reach, feeling for dents, dings, and corrosion If you find any, make a note and inform your mechanic when he inspects it–vacuum and hydraulic leaks are often a labor-intensive fix, and labor is what really kills you at a garage.

You’ll want to check the main gaskets–valve cover, head, exhaust, intake manifold. You won’t be able to detect small leaks, but if there’s staining or scoring around the edges, it can be a clue that the car has, or had, a seriously blown gasket. If you find one, make a note…you know the drill. If you find one at the head gasket, be worried–on aluminum engines (most modern engines), hard driving can cause the head to warp, which will require the whole top end of the engine to be replaced (or at least resurfaced), and that gets pricey. By the way, if you drive your cars up near red-line a lot, and/or you don’t pay attention to your temperature, you run the risk of toasting your engine and warping the head.

While you’re in here, look for enhancements you might want–particularly structural braces. Strut tower and other aftermarket cross-bracing will significantly improve the durability of the frame, particularly on convertibles. Also look for enhancements you don’t want (i.e. anything that might give you trouble with smog). If you find enhancements that you like but that aren’t smog-legal, make sure the stock parts are still in perfect condition and come with the car–and bear in mind that you’ll have to swap the parts out yourself.

Check the normal stuff, too–air filter, plug wires, and the general age and condition of all your consumables. It’s always good to know how long it’ll be before you need to perform a major tune-up. Check drive belt tension and suppleness (or, if you’re looking at a car with multiple belts, check them all). Make sure the electrical cables are properly wrapped and not resting on melt points (i.e. anything that gets really hot). Also take a look at the radiator–make sure it’s not cracked, that the air fins aren’t bent or damaged, and that there’s nothing melted onto it.

Finally, be sure to check the fluids. The oil should be light and clear. Dark oil is ready to be changed–sludgy oil has been left in too long. Oil with metal flakes in it is a sign of an impending engine rebuild–oil with bubbles in it is also a bad sign.

Brake fluid should be pale green or pale yellow–brown or gray means it’s ready for replacement.

Automatic transmission fluid and coolant can vary in color, but do check that they’re at adequate levels (ATF should be checked hot, not cold, so check it after your test drive).

While you’re in the engine compartment, you also want to get a feel for the geography and the elbow room–if you intend to maintain the car yourself in any degree, you need to make sure you can move around well enough to reach most of the normal stuff.

When you’ve finished in there, close it up and head into the cab.

The Interior

So, now that you’re finally in the car, take a good look. Stains, rips, wear, and build quality all matter. Do all the little compartments close and open properly? Is the car clean enough that you can live with it? These are the things everyone looks at, and they’re important, but they’re just the tip.

Check that the seats are properly mounted. They shouldn’t shift even under the weight of the heaviest passenger during an emergency stop. If they’re falling apart, make a note–they’ll need to be replaced and/or remounted if you value your life. Seat belts should operate easily and correctly, and latch securely. The emergency brake should be tight and effective–you shouldn’t be able to drive the car with it set, except under heavy acceleration.

Before you start the car up for your test drive, check every single electrical gizmo in the car, no matter how many there are (including the wipers, headlights, blinkers, running lights, and hazards). If there’s a knob, twist it. If there’s a button, push it. If it’s not labeled, push it anyway and find out what it does. Make sure everything works, make a note of anything that doesn’t, or that is on the verge of failing.

One last thing while you’re in here–if you have (or can buy) an OBD-II code reader (~$30 at most auto parts stores), bring it and plug it in. Run the standard diagnostics on the car’s computer, and make a note of any error codes it turns up. ODB-II code readers will talk to most cars built after 1996, and they’re the first thing a mechanic will use when you take your car in to get looked at. Having one around is always useful. Car dealers generally won’t be happy about you plugging one in, but they don’t need to see anyway–tell the salesman to leave you alone, and you’ll get him when you’re ready to ask questions.

The Test Drive

Test driving isn’t just about seeing if a car is comfortable–that’s important, but it’s not the whole story. The test drive lets you figure out how the car will perform on the road. At this point, I’m assuming you’ve already done the early stages, where you test drive for ergonomics, comfort, performance, and visibility. Now, it’s time to seriously shake down this particular car to see if it’s the one you want to buy.

Your goal during this test drive is to subject it to as wide a variety of conditions as you can. Pick a route that will let you do all of the following: comfortable cruising, hard acceleration from a standing start, hard acceleration from 50-80 (this is probably the most overlooked part of car choice–emergency acceleration on the freeway can save your life, and you want a car that’ll do it eagerly), emergency stopping, hard cornering, rough pavement driving, hill climbing, hill descending, surface street driving, parking lot driving.

As you drive, pay attention to the noises. Does the back end rattle and squeak? The busings could be worn and might need replacing. Does the front end squeak? Is the steering tight, or sloppy? Sloppy steering can get pricey to fix. Does the car drift consistently when you take your hands off the wheel? The alignment probably needs to be redone. Is there a strobing vibration through the steering wheel? One of the tires might be out of balance, or the tie rods might be loose. Make a note of everything.

How does the engine sound? Are is it knocking? Is it misfiring? Does it choke or change power suddenly under acceleration? Does it threaten to stall when you get off the freeway? Is the exhaust rattling? Is it running rough? And, speaking of the engine, does the temp gauge show nominal even when climbing hills or stuck in traffic? For that matter, do all the gauges work properly?

How is the gearing? Can you cruise comfortably at highway speeds, or are you constantly having to shift to maintain both power and speed on the freeway at 65? Is the gearbox grinding when you shift, no matter how careful you are with the clutch (if so, either the clutch or the tranny needs a serious look)? If it’s an automatic, is the shifting smooth and seamless, or is it jolting you like a driving student in a VW bus? And, btw, did you check that reverse works? You’d be amazed how many people don’t?

Do the tires hold the road like a car of this model should? If they don’t, the shocks/struts and/or springs might need replacing (assuming the tires are in good condition and not overfilled). Is the turning radius satisfactory for your needs? Is the ride spongier than it should be (if so, you may need new shocks/struts)?

Finally, the brakes. Braking should be smooth and quickly responsive. An emergency stop from 45mph should have a minimum of brake fade. If the car has ABS, stand on the brakes and see if you can get them to lock up–and if you can, don’t buy that car (if the car doesn’t have ABS, then you will be able to lock up the brakes–you want to find out how quick you can make it stop without locking up the brakes).

Once you park, there’s one more thing you want to do:
Check the oil again. And, again, check for bubbles and metal particles. Sometimes, they only show up when the engine’s warm.

Assuming the car has checked out to your specifications, you’re ready to deal–but there’s a few things you’ll want to bear in mind first. We’ll cover those–and get back to my personal BMW saga, next time.

Keep the conversation going in the comments, and be sure to ask any questions you want answered in the next post–or correct any errors or oversights I’ve made.


  1. “Rear not, I’ll mention it if it occurs to me–and we’re on to the rest of the checklist.”

    I believe you meant Fear not…

    Love the article series. Can’t wait for part 5.


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