The big day has finally arrived. The smiling salesman is standing right next to your dream car holding out the key for your first test drive. You’ve done hours of intense research checking every review and online report you can find about your baby. From there you earnestly compared dealer inventory, and pricing, and colors, and pricing, and options, and pricing again from every Maine car dealer and beyond. There she is just waiting for you to hop in and hit the road for adventure.
There is little doubt that shopping for a new car or new truck can be as nerve racking as it is exciting. And it doesn’t have to be a brand new vehicle to create these emotions, does it? It just has to be brand new to you. Adding to the pressure is the fact that next to your home, your car is the biggest purchase most of us will ever make.
Throughout my 20 years in the collision industry I inspected hundreds of new and used cars and trucks for friends, customers, and car dealers. This experience has taught me how to effectively inspect and test drive your new or used car before purchase. Through this article I’ll share some of this experience with you.
The first point I’d like to make is to take your time and don’t let emotion rule the day. I know that’s easier said than done but it’s better than driving off the car lot in a costly and unnecessary mistake. One way to accomplish this is to bring a trusted friend along with you. No, not the one that says, “Oh! I just love the color you just have to buy it.” I’m talking about the friend that looks at the odometer and says, “Hey buddy, it’s got a lot of miles on it, did you check the warranty?”
It’s good to understand that a big part of selling cars, new or used, is working the 5 senses. Okay maybe 4 since most of us are unlikely (I hope) to lick their new car. Let’s see how this works:
Sight: the shiny paint job in your favorite color is the first of the senses to attract you.
Touch: sitting in the driver seat with your hands on the wheel. You can already see yourself cruising the back roads of Maine.
Sound: Turn the key and listen to the smooth purr of the engine, and tuning the radio to your favorite station only adds to your euphoric dream state.
Smell: I know this is mostly a new car thing but I believe the smell of leather seats last forever and still works on me. My wife says it’s a guy thing.
It’s said by salesmen that if you can get a car buyer to fall victim, I mean fall in love with at least 2 of these very powerful sensations the sales commission is all but theirs.
So how do you avoid new car infatuation and stay focused on the real reason for a test drive? Along with your trusted friend, you can write a list of things to check off, and in what order. As you walk around discussing the basic features with the salesman, don’t be afraid to stop and ask questions, open the hood, and trunk, kick the tires so to speak. By the way, kicking the tires really doesn’t tell you anything unless they fall off the car when you do.
The following is a sample list of what you should be looking for, or hoping not to see.
The first thing I do is walk around the car looking at how the doors, hood, trunk, and lights line up with the rest of the car. Crooked lines are often a sign of an accident.
Open and close all the doors and deck lid or trunk. Do they open and close smooth and tight?
Be realistic, a Yugo won’t sound like a BMW, but it should feel solid. While the trunk is open look for any signs of water leaks. These can usually be fixed but you want to know before you buy. Be sure to check the lights and turn signal before you leave the car lot.
During the test drive is not the time to play with the radio or the air. That can be done when you get back to the car dealership. Right now you need to focus on feel and sound. Are there any weird or obnoxious vibrations, rattles, or squeaks? I like to compare this to being on a first date with someone attractive but also has an annoying laugh. Infatuation tells you, “It’s not so bad, I can live with this.” Two weeks later it’s like fingernails on the chalkboard.
Sometime during the test drive, find a straight, level street if you can and lighten your grip on the steering wheel. Does the car want to veer left or right? If it does it needs to be checked. It could be alignment, tires, or something much worse. Take a minute to look at the gauges, look for warning lights or gauges that aren’t working. I also recommend sitting in the back seat yourself. Have your friend or the salesman drive while you listen. Is there enough room for any passengers you may need to ferry around town comfortably? If you have a family, you know what I’m talking about.
After you return to the dealership, keep the motor running for a few minutes. Now is the time to pop the hood and take a look under the car for leaks. This is also the time to check out the AC and any other accessories including the ever important radio. If you’re still not certain about, well… about most anything, don’t be afraid to ask for the car to be put up on a lift, or have it inspected by an independent mechanic of your choice.
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of inspection items that should be done but a good start. I encourage you to take all the time you need before you commit to the purchase. Ask lots of questions and bring a trusted friend or advisor, but whatever you do, don’t fall prey to new car infatuation.