Used-Car Test Drive Checklist

Print this checklist, grab a flashlight, a magnet, a rag, and a pencil, and you're ready to inspect.

 Vehicle: _____________________




Seats, door panels, headliner, rugs, and mats


Seat belts, front and rear


Door locks, power windows, and power seats


Radio, tape player, or compact disk player


Horn and steering column


Windshield wiper and automatic fluid


Dash lights, interior lights, and everything you can get your hands on

Before starting the engine


Stand behind the vehicle and look for smoke


Barely visible (just a little white is normal)


Blue smoke indicates burning oil


Black smoke indicates engine too rich (too much fuel)


Heavy, white smoke indicates a blown head gasket or cracked head

Test drive


On your test drive, find some rough pavement, go over a few bumps and listen for rattles, squeaks, and loose suspension.


Test to see if car pulls to one side or the other (sudden veering may indicate car needs front-end alignment).


(Front wheel drive only) Find an empty parking lot and turn sharply to the right and left in a tight circle and listen for knocking sounds (may need CV joints).


Brake performance: Brakes should stop smoothly and quietly (no squeaks or pulsations or pulling from one side to the other).


Brake pedal should feel firm--not spongy.


Try the air conditioner and the heater to make sure they work.


Engine performance: Engine should run smoothly and quietly. Listen for pings, rattles, knocks, grinds, vibrations, squeals, engine hesitation, or stumbles on acceleration.


Transmission performance: An automatic transmission should shift smoothly without jerking, slipping, or hesitation on upshift. With a manual transmission shift gears and listen. A grinding sound may indicate needed clutch plate or internal repairs.

Under the hood




Fluid levels


Oil (should be light brown)


Antifreeze (should be green)


Power steering (should be clear)


Transmission (should be red)


Belts (check for cracks)


Hoses (should be firm, not soft or hard)


Battery and connections


Electrical connections and wiring


Old oil buildup or sludge inside the valve cover--where the oil filler cap is (signs of neglect)

Under the vehicle




Undercarriage for damage


Exhaust system


Tires for uneven wear


Loose parts hanging from body


Rear suspension for leaks


Rust on body


CV boots (corrugated rubber boots, usually black) that surround the CV joints on front-wheel drive vehicles



Operation of hood, doors, door glass, all latches, and keys


Exterior body paint (look for overspread on weather strips, molding around windshield, rear glass, inside fenders, near hood or truck lid, rear panels, and door handles)


Vehicle's body for waviness, irregularities on both sides


Magnet check on panels (if doesn't stick, panel is not metalómay have been replaced)


Mismatched colors and uneven textures


Poorly fitted panels that suggest body repairs


All lights, headlamps, taillights, turn signals, brake lights, back-up lights, and license plate tag lights


Spare tire, jack, and tools


Water or water damage in trunk



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