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Nashville Scene Shakedown Cruise

How to buy a used car

By Marc Stengel

JUNE 1, 1999:  Giving a prospective used-car purchase the once-over is a crucial enough topic that it requires two installments to sketch out an adequate "To Do" list. Last week, we summarized the basic static tests--that is, the simple but essential scrutineering you should perform on a used car while it's standing still. These include structural, mechanical, and cosmetic evaluations of both car and motor. According to Scott Kilmer, author of Everyone's Guide to Buying a Used Car (On the Road Press, $12.95), the purpose so far has been to look for hidden problems and to take thorough notes.

"I don't care how good a mechanic you believe yourself to be," Scott said in a recent interview, "you've got to include a good, independent mechanic in your car-buying process." The idea, Kilmer points out, is for a second set of eyes either to back up or to contradict your own suspicions. The notes you take give your mechanic a running start in his evaluation, but it's his independence from the transaction that gives him credibility. "There's no substitute for the opinion of a trained, professional mechanic," says Kilmer, who also writes and hosts an automotive television show called Crank It Up for the CBS affiliate in Houston, Tex. "I've been working on cars for over 30 years, and I still learn 15 to 20 new things every day. There's just no way a part-time enthusiast can equal the experience of someone who works on cars for a living, day in and day out."

That's not to say the buyer can afford to drop his guard when looking over a used car. Quite the contrary. After combing over the bodywork and listening intently to the engine immediately after start-up, your evaluation session reaches its climax with the all-important test-drive. "This much you can count on," Kilmer points out with a hearty chortle, "the seller doesn't want you to get too comfortable for too long behind the wheel of his car. You'll probably notice that the gas tank's almost bone dry, for example. So the first thing you do is pull into a gas station and put two or three bucks of gas in the car--enough to give you a decent 15 or 20 minutes behind the wheel. Then, as politely as you can, just suggest to the seller that you'd rather not hold a conversation right now--that you want to listen to different things going on with the car. Believe me, if he wants to sell, he'll shut up."

Kilmer advises dividing the test-drive 50/50 into city and highway sessions. "You're going to be starting out in the city most likely," he observes, "so look for some rough patches or speed bumps to flush out any groans or other noises from the suspension. Then pull into a parking lot or quiet street to check reverse gear. Reverse is often the first gear to go out in an automatic transmission; if you hear or feel something strange while backing up, it's a problem either with the rear end or with the transmission. You can just walk away from the deal right there.

"Then, if the car's a front-wheel-drive, what you want to do is make very hard left-hand and right-hand U-turns. That checks out the CV [constant velocity] joints. It you hear that tell-tale 'clickety-clack' like a horse on dry pavement, you know the CV joints have a problem that will cost anywhere from $300 to $500 a set to repair."

Kilmer recommends concentrating on one issue at a time: the radio, for example, followed by braking, then steering feel, and so on. All the while, of course, you're making comprehensive mental notes that you'll need to commit to paper as soon as the test-drive is over.

"The next test depends on what kind of transmission the car has," Kilmer says. "If it's an automatic, you want to accelerate gradually from a dead stop to see if it makes shifts smoothly without any feeling of drag. But if it's a manual transmission, you want to be kinda hard on it through the gears to see if the clutch is slipping or if it pops out of gear."

If the car has air-conditioning, Kilmer recommends running the HVAC at full-blast for the entire test-drive, whether it's summer or winter. "Watch the temperature gauge," he advises. "If at any time the gauge gets too hot with the A/C on, there's either a problem with the engine's cooling system or the A/C fan isn't working. Either way, it's something that'll have to be fixed."

Once again, Kilmer stresses that putting a car through its paces in a test-drive is nothing but a preamble to getting a second opinion from a mechanic. If the seller resists, walk away; if he complains that he'll be missing too many opportunities to show the car to someone else, make an appointment for later if the car isn't sold in the meantime. In any event, Kilmer steadfastly maintains that the best defense against a bad deal is to combine the buyer's emotional reaction to the car with a mechanic's dispassionate appraisal of it. Otherwise, he suggests, why bother with a used car in the first place?

"I'd say 95 percent of the customers I have in my own repair business pay way too much when they buy a used car anyway," he admits. "They've usually got the hots for something that's just two or three years old, so they're happy because they're saving eight or 10 grand off of a new one. Well, I tell 'em they're nuts. Buy the four- to six-year-old cars, because then you get 'em for 20 to 30 cents on the dollar. If they're good, solid cars, they might still have 60 to 70 percent of their life span, and you're saving 80 percent of the price."

Of course, those kinds of savings depend on making a sound buy. But if you shop smart, rein in your emotions, and pay for expert help to evaluate your prospective purchase, the next sound you hear may be the satisfying jingle of significant savings in your automotive pocketbook.

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