This Guide will show you some of the things you will need to inspect after you start the car.

Click here for the Starting Checklist

There are several things you will want to inspect before you even go on the Test Drive. This page is designed to help spot any potential problems.

Before you start the vehicle, turn the key to the 'run' position and verify that all the warning lamps light up, specially the 'Service Engine' or 'Check Engine'. The run position is usually 2 clicks forward and is the setting that is directly before the actual starting of the vehicle. This test will make sure that all the warning indicators are operational and the bulbs are not burned out nor disconnected. There have been cases where the seller disconnects the Check Engine light to mask a problem the vehicle may have in order to sell the vehicle for more money. Since many emission-testing facilities connect directly to the vehicle, they can check if there is a faulty light, which can prohibit you from registering the vehicle until the problem(s) has been corrected.


Now it's time to start the vehicle. First, be sure to turn down the radio volume; this way you will be able to listen to everything the vehicle is doing. When you turn the key, pay attention to how long it takes it to start as well as any noises such as grinding, hesitation, or any squealing noises. Once the car is started, it's time to go back under the hood to check the transmission fluid. If you are not comfortable doing this, it would be a good idea to come back at a later date with someone who can do this for you. Transmissions can be very costly to fix, so it is important to be able to check the fluid before purchasing or test driving. The dipstick is typically red, however, if you can't locate it, ask the seller to show you where it is. When checking, pull the dipstick out once, wipe it clean, and then reinsert it. Pull it out a second time and read the results. Note: Manual transmission cars will not do this step. (Note: Some late model vehicles have Sealed Transmissions that cannot be checked.)

Figure 4-1
The red handle is the transmission dipstick.
Figure 4-2
Note the level marks on the dipstick.

Follow the Checklists.

Before you go on the test drive, use the checklist and go through the items listed. Included are the air conditioning, power windows, locks, mirrors, seats, windshield wipers and washers, turn signals, headlights, tail lights, brake lights, and high beams. If the turn signal works in one direction and not the other, then usually it is a burned out bulb on the side that does not work. When the air conditioning is turned on, you should hear the compressor turn on (Figure 4-3). If it doesn't, then it possibly needs repair. When checking the windows, be sure to lower them all the way down, then all the way back up. Ask the seller to depress the brake pedal so you can inspect the brake lights and make sure they are working properly. The checklist is color coded to represent if the item has gone beyond maintenance or if the safety of the vehicle has been reduced: i.e. if the brake lights are not working.


Figure 4-3
Here is an example of an A/C compressor.

After you have gone through those items, look in the top left inside corner of the windshield for an oil change log. Most oil changing stations place a decal there which indicates when the next oil change is scheduled and the mileage when it should take place no later than. Compare this information to the mileage that is currently on the vehicle. If there is a discrepancy or there isn't a decal, ask the seller when the oil was serviced last. This will be important in determining how well the previous owner took care of the automobile. Also, look at the dashboard display. Are there any warning lights on? Examples would be Service Engine Soon, Check Engine, or Low Coolant.



We are not affiliated with any other automotive web site, company, or lending institution. We give our customers the tools they need to make an educated purchasing decision for themselves. We offer no opinions in regards to which manufacturer, make, or model a customer should purchase. This system has been designed around actual car buyers who experienced problems, some severe, and is beneficial to use whether you are going by yourself, or bringing someone to help you look at the vehicle. The program is 'dealership friendly' and has been developed with cooperation from Auto Mechanics, Sales Consultants, and Sales Managers. The Auto Evaluator is a guide, not a guarantee and always consult a qualified mechanic. The Auto Evaluator and all it contains is a TradeMark of Mistar Enterprises, LLC.