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Guide to inspecting a modern used car

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Getting a new car, whether it’s brand new or new to you, is an exciting time. It’s also an expensive time, so the last thing you want is to pick a dud. If you’re planning to buy a modern used car in the near future, bear in mind the following advice.

Before you leave the house, do the research. Start off by visiting the RAC vehicle review database on the RAC’s website. Print the report for the car you’re checking out and take it with you to check the items listed in “What to look for”.

Modern engines are very efficient, but proper maintenance is essential to keep them that way. Ask for the service history and look through it carefully. If a service is due, or even slightly overdue, that’s not a problem as long as the previous ones have been done on time. Check that the mileage is genuine in the service book – a missing history is often a sign that the car has been clocked. If the service record is seriously incomplete or missing, walk away.

Check the lights on the dashboard. ABS, traction control, and airbags amongst others, all have dashboard warning lights. Make sure they all come on when you turn on the ignition. They will light up for a few seconds as each system checks itself, then go out, so you may need to turn the ignition on and off a few times before you spot them all. Don’t let the seller hurry you – it will do no harm to the car. A few lights will remain on until the engine is started, but 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.

The engine should start easily, hot or cold, petrol or diesel. Listen carefully for the first few seconds – any brief knocks or rattles mean trouble. If you can hear anything inside the car other than a smooth hum, there’s a problem. White vapour from a cold petrol engine is quite normal provided it disappears as the temperature rises, but white smoke from a warmed-up diesel isn’t. Neither is black smoke on heavy acceleration or blue smoke at any time – from petrol or diesel. This will be most noticeable when the engine is warm, so check it after you’ve finished your road test, before you switch off.
On the road test check the suspension by listening for rattles or clunks over rough roads. Check the gear-change smoothness, make sure the car steers straight ahead without wandering and check that the brakes stop the car squarely, without pulling to one side.
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.

Once you’ve chosen the car, spend a few pounds to check its history on the RAC’s vehicle database. You’ll see whether it’s ever been an insurance write-off, stolen, or if there is any outstanding finance.

Ultimately if the price isn’t right, you don’t trust the information you’re given, or you’re not sure about the car, walk away. If you have any doubts go home and sleep on it – there are thousands more cars out there.

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