With the summer holidays well behind us, Christmas not yet on the horizon, and forecourts full of pre-owned cars traded in for the latest ‘67’ plate model, many car owners are thinking about trading up to a newer vehicle.
However, today’s high-tech vehicles can sometimes conceal wallet-crunching problems unknown on previous generations of cars. Follow the advice from Tim Shallcross, Head of Technical Policy at the Institute of Advanced Motorists’ RoadSmart division, and you’ll be able to pick out the trustworthy bargains.
1. Service history. Modern engines are staggeringly efficient compared with their predecessors, but proper maintenance is essential to keep them that way. Oil, brake fluid, filters and coolant must all be changed when the manufacturer specifies, or expensive trouble is being stored up for the future. Ask for the service history and look through it carefully. If the service record is seriously incomplete or missing, walk away.
2. Dashboard lights. ABS, SRS, ESC, engine management – every electronic system has a warning light. Make sure they all light up when you turn on the ignition – unscrupulous sellers have been known to remove a bulb to disguise a faulty system. You may need to turn the ignition on and off a few times before you spot them all. Most should go out within a few seconds, the rest of them when you start the engine and release the handbrake. After that, a light means a problem. Don’t be fobbed off with “they all do that” or “that’s normal”. The car has a fault, so walk away.
3. Engine. Listen carefully for the first few seconds – knocks or rattles on start-up can mean trouble. Watch the exhaust smoke. White vapour from a cold engine is normal – provided it disappears as the temperature rises. Black smoke on heavy acceleration means dirty or worn injectors, and blue smoke at any time indicates a badly worn engine – often through neglected maintenance. Avoid the car.
4. Road test. Listen for suspension rattles and clunks on rough roads. Check gear-change smoothness, that the car steers straight ahead, and that it brakes squarely. Try stopping at different rates – gently and rapidly. The engine should never stall as the car stops, nor should the revs drop very low then pick up to the right idle speed. If it does, there’s a problem with the management system.
Above all, keep your head and reject any car with signs of problems. Cars are more often an emotional choice than a rational one, but the emotional choice is much more likely to end in tears. If you have any doubts at all, go home and sleep on it. If the salesperson hints at other buyers on the way, call their bluff – there are many more bargains out there.