Start the car yourself – preferably from cold – and listen for any out-of-place mechanical sounds. Listen for any little-man-with-a-hammer sounds that indicate ill-adjusted tappets.
The engine should deliver smooth power, without any hesitation, undue noise or noticeable exhaust smoke.
On manual gearbox cars, check for any difficulty in selecting gears, for any noise from the gearbox and for any clutch slip. The gears should make no graunching or grinding sounds during gearshifts.
Automatics should engage first gear smoothly and not jolt. Upshifts on a light throttle should be smooth. Kickdown (down-changing on-demand when you open the throttle wider) usually won’t be as smooth as an upshift, but it shouldn’t be noticeably abrupt, jerky or rough.
Around 50km/h, lift off the throttle abruptly and check the rear-vision mirror for any signs of smoke from the exhaust, indicating piston/cylinder wear.
Check for burning oil or exhaust fume smells. Reject any car in which you find either.
Drive the car up a steep hill and look for any signs of smoke. Worn engines will announce their presence more readily when they’re under strain. Check the handbrake by stopping on a hill, engaging the brake and taking your foot off the brake pedal. The car should hold firm. The restart will also be a good test of the clutch’s condition.
If possible drive the car on the motorway or open road and check for any shuddering through the steering wheel that indicates out-of-balance or misaligned wheels. It‘s usually most evident above 80km/h and especially between 90 and 100.
Find a deserted car park or other open space. Take your hands off the steering wheel and check that the car continues to drive straight ahead: pulling to one side indicates steering or wheel alignment problems.
If it‘s a front-wheel drive car, wind down the front windows and turn complete circles in both directions on full lock, listening for any knocking or clacking from the front wheels which indicates worn constant velocity joints.
Check the brakes’ efficiency by braking hard to a standstill. The car should stop in a straight line without any grabbing from any wheel.
Before you take a car for a test-drive, ask whether it’s insured. If you crash an uninsured car you’ll be up for the cost of repairs.