Whether you buy from a dealer or private party, always inspect the vehicle thoroughly before bringing it to a mechanic for a final inspection. You don't have to be an expert to give a car a good, revealing going-over. You can learn a great deal just by using your eyes, ears, and nose. Dress in old clothes and bring along a friend to help you. Do your inspection in broad daylight on a dry day or in a well-lit garage. The car must be parked on a level surface and shouldn't have been driven for at least an hour benfore you take a look.



First, walk around the car and see if it's standing level. If it sags to one side, it may have broken springs or another suspension problem. Bounce each corner of the car up and down. If the shock absorbers are in good shape, the car should rebound just once or twice and not keep bouncing up and down. Then grab the top of each front tire and tug it back and forth. If you feel play in it or hear a clunking sound, the wheel bearings or suspension joints may be shot.

Body condition. Check each body panel and the roof, looking for scratches, dents, and rust. The gaps between the panels and surrounding surfaces should be uniform. Ex­amine the lines of the fenders and doors. Misaligned panels or large gaps can indicate either sloppy assembly at the factory or repair.

The easiest way to find out if the car has been in an accident is to ask the owner. But you should still take a look for yourself. Paint color and finish should be the sameeverywhere. A repainted body panel might not quite match the original in color or gloss. It's very hard for a body shop to duplicate the texture and finish of a factory's baked-on paint. Look for differences in color on the outside edges of panels. A repainted panel may even look more mirrorlike than the original, but the paint may not weather the same or last as long.

Sometimes a repair is obvious. Other times, you'll have to peer closely, moving your head slowly to catch the light. If you think a dent may have been patched up, use a magnet to see if it sticks to the suspect area. If a dent was filled with plastic body filler, the magnet won't stick. (This test won't work if the car has plastic or fiberglass body parts, such as are found on a Saturn or Chevrolet Corvette.)

Look for signs of body repair on the sills around door openings, the hood, and trunk lid. If parts of the car have been repainted, there may be signs of "overspray," or paint adhering to the rubber seals around the body openings. Look carefully at the underside of the hood and trunk lid for signs of damage or repair.

Minor cosmetic flaws are no cause for concern, but rust is. Look particularly for blistered paint or rust spots around the wheel wells and rocker panels (the sheet metal beneath the doors) and the bottoms of the doors themselves. Use a flashlight to look inside the wheel wells for rust and corrosion caused by salt.

Open and close each door, the hood, and the trunk. Do they ride freely on their hinges and close properly? Gently lift and let go of each door, particularly the driver's door. If the door is loose on its hinges, the car has seen hard or long use. Also inspect the rubber seals around all openings to be sure they're intact. Loose, deteriorated, or missing rubber can create water leaks, drafts, and wind noise.

Lights and lenses.Have your friend stand outside the car and confirm that all lights are working. Try out both low-beam and high-beam headlights, the parking lights, the; turn signals, and any ancillary lights, such as fog lights. Make sure all the light lenses are intact and not cracked, fogged with moisture, or missing.

Tires. You can tell a lot from the tires. If the car has less than, say, 30,000 miles on the odometer, it should probably still have its original rubber. If a car with low miles on the odometer has new tires, be suspicious. Turn the front wheels all the way to right or left, so you can get a good look at them. All four should be the same brand and size (except on a few performance cars, which use different sizes on the front and rear). If there is a mix of the brands or sizes on the car, ask why.

Tread wear should be even across the width of the tread. It should also be the on the left and right sides of the car. Ask if the tires have been rotated front-to-reargu- larly. If not, the wear is usually more severe on the drive wheels.

An aggressive driver tends to put heavy wear on the outside shoulder of the tire, at the edge of the sidewall. If the shoulder is badly worn, assume that the car has been driven hard.

Check the tread depth, either with a tread-depth tool (available at auto-parts stores) or with a penny. To be legal, tires must have at least 1/16 inch of tread. If you don't have a tread gauge, insert a penny into the tread groove, with Lincoln's head down. If you can see the top of the head, the tire should be replaced.

On each tire, lightly stroke the tread with the flat of your hand. If you feel raised areas, the tire was not aligned properly. That symptom could point to a simple malad­justment or a costly suspension repair; have your mechanic check it out. Tires with that sort of wear will tend to make the steering wheel vibrate at highway speeds.

Examine the sidewalls for scuffing, cracks, or bulges, and look on the edge of each rim for dents or cracks. A hard impact with a pothole or curb could have knocked a tire out of alignment or damaged a tire, rim, or suspension part.

Brake discs.Check the rotors on disc brakes. Most cars have disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear; some have disc brakes all around. With a flashlight, peer through the front wheel rims. The rotor discs should be smooth, with no deep grooves.

Don't worry about traces of surface rust on the discs. After your test drive, when you've used the brakes, the discs should look clean and smooth.

Glass. Look carefully at the windshield and other windows to make sure there are no cracks. A small bull's-eye from a stone hit on the windshield may not be cause for alarm, though you should point it out as a bargaining chip. Cracks in the windshield

often grow worse over time and can lead to a costly repair.


Odor. When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A musty, moldy, or mildewy smell could indicate water leaks. Be diligent here because water leaks can be very hard to find and fix. Remove the floor mats, and feel and sniff for wet spots on the carpet beneath. If there's doubt, find another car.

Pedal rubber. The rubber on the brake, clutch, and gas pedals gives an indication of use. A car with low miles shouldn't show much wear. If the pedal rubber is worn through in spots, it indicates high miles. If the clutch-pedal rubber is badly worn, it may mean the driver is in the habit of riding the clutch, which puts a strain on it and the gearbox.

Instruments and controls. Start the car and let it idle. Note if it's hard to start when cold. Note too whether the engine idles smoothly. Then methodically try out every ever switch, button, and lever. Check all the doors and their locks, and operate the window If there's a sunroof, open and close it. Try the interior lights, overhead dome light, any an reading lights, and the lighted vanity mirrors on the sun visors. Honk the horn.|

Turn on the heater full blast and see how hot it gets, how quickly. Switch on the air the a conditioning and make sure it blows cold. If there are seat heaters, turn them on and see how warm they get.

Try the sound system. Check radio reception on AM and FM, and try loading, playing, and ejecting a tape or compact disc if there is a tape or CD player.

Seats. Try out all the seats even though you may not plan on sitting in the rear. The driver's seat typically has more wear than the passenger's, but it shouldn't sag. The upholstery shouldn't be ripped or badly worn, particularly in a car that's supposed to have low miles on it. Try all the driver's-seat adjustments, along with the steering height-and-reach adjustment, to make sure you can have a good driving position.


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