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10 STEPS TO BUYING A USED CAR

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Step 7: Conduct a Thorough Test Drive

It looks good and sounds fine, so now it's time for the all-important test drive. This gives you the opportunity to gauge a vehicle's driving characteristics and also minimizes the chance of future buyer's remorse.

Most people take only a few minutes to test drive a car; this is a big mistake that often comes back to haunt them. Before driving, spend as much time as you can inside the car. Sit in it for a while and check out every interior function. You may want to bring along a favorite CD to find out if the sound system is up to your satisfaction.

Things to notice before your test drive:

Seat Comfort
Is the seat too hard or too soft? Does it hold you firmly with good lateral and thigh support? Do your legs start to cramp? Does your lower back feel like it needs more support? Take your time, because the seat is the one feature you use constantly every moment you're in the car. Imagine paying lots of good money only to find after the first hour on the road that your back is in agony.

Cockpit Ergonomics
Is the steering wheel too high or too close to the instrument panel? When adjusted to a comfortable position, does it cut off your view of any or all of the gauges? Look at the layout of the radio and heater controls. Can they be easily adjusted without taking your eyes of the road? Look over your shoulder. Are there any blind spots that you cannot compensate for by using your mirrors? Climb into all the seats and check the head and legroom for future passengers. Do the headrests come up far enough? Do they touch your head or are they raked back at an angle away from you? Does the seat belt have an adjustable anchor or does it cut into your neck? Are there child-seat anchors? Check to see how far the rear windows roll down. Some models have windows that go down only a few inches or are sealed in place and don't roll down at all. Take your time to explore all these areas. Then take it for a drive.

Dashboard Lights
Before staring the car, turn the key to the "Accessory" position (the last position before the engine starts). All the dash warning lights should illuminate. Be sure both the "check engine" and, if equipped with antilock brakes, the "ABS" lights illuminate. If they do not, the problem could be as minor as a burned-out bulb or as serious as tampering to disguise a problem. In either case, insist the problem be corrected or inspected before proceeding.

Engine Noise
Upon first starting the engine, listen for any tapping or ticking sounds. A prolonged tapping could be valves needing adjustment or a bad hydraulic lifter. If equipped with power steering, turn the wheel from side to side and listen for belt squeal. Pump the brake pedal a few times and then press hard with your foot. If it slowly sinks all the way to the floor, there is either a leak in the line or the master cylinder or brake booster needs repair. Shift into gear. If the car is an automatic, the transmission should engage immediately and, as you drive, shifts should be crisp, firm and quick. There should be no grinding or groaning sound of any kind from the transmission when you select gears. With your foot firmly on the brake, shift from drive to reverse; clunks or grinding noises could indicate worn or broken engine or transmission mounts, bad universal joints or differential wear.

Steering Vibration
As you drive along, does the steering wheel shake or vibrate? It shouldn't. Vibration in the steering wheel can mean anything from an unbalanced tire to a loose steering rack. If the steering wheel shakes but only when you are braking, this could indicate a warped brake rotor or sticking caliper.

The Brakes
Cars with ABS (antilock brakes) will have a slight pulsating action in the pedal when the brake is applied with great force (panic stops, for example). Cars without ABS should not have pulsating brake pedals under any circumstances. The car should also continue in a straight line when the brakes are applied. If the car pulls noticeably to the left or right, it could indicate a problem with the front brake calipers or pads, some other area of the brakes, the suspension or steering gear.
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