Monthly Archives: February 2011

Test the exhaust emissions

The vehicle may also be connected to an exhaust-gas-analyzer by inserting a probe into the tailpipe. With the car running in Neutral, the mechanic can check the amount of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) in the exhaust (other emissions can be tested with more sophisticated analyzers, but these two reveal a great deal). He will check the engine at idle and at higher rpm, comparing the results to specs for that specific make and model of vehicle. A good test means that the engine’s carburetion/fuel injection is working efficiently. Engine mechanical problems such as worn rings, valves, and valve guides can also be detected through an emissions test.


In some states, an emissions check will be required before you can register the vehicle in your name. If not provided by the seller, it may be wise to get the required state certification at this time.

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Fluid Leaks

If you are looking at a used car or truck at a new-car dealership or used-car lot, the chances are good that the vehicle’s engine compartment has been professionally steam-cleaned and detailed. This doesn’t mean that the dealer is necessarily hiding anything; he is just making the car as clean and “showable” as he can for quicker sales. Usually, the engine and engine compartment will look like brand new. This has its good points and bad points for you as a potential buyer. New or serious, long-term leaks are easier to spot on a clean engine than a dirty one, and after your test-drive, any leaks that show up in the newly-cleaned engine.

Fluid leak points on a typical rear-wheel drive vehicle (engine compartment)

  1. Receiver/drier (refrigerant)
  2. Heater hoses (coolant)
  3. Thermostat gasket (coolant)
  4. Fuel injection unit or carburetor (fuel)
  5. Valve cover (engine oil)
  6. Master cylinder and lines (brake fluid)
  7. Water pump (coolant)
  8. Windshield washer reservoir (washer fluid)
  9. Coolant reservoir (coolant)
  10. Power steering pump and hoses (power steering fluid)
  11. Radiator (coolant)
  12. Radiator hose (coolant)

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The Haynes Used Car Buying Guide

Most buyers of used cars want the same basic ideal purchase, a clean car that is mechanically-sound and in their price range. The first inspection of the body and interior has told you that the car is clean, and your second important consideration is mechanical condition. Thus, the first step in your more thorough inspection is the engine compartment. If there’s one area that most used car buyers are concerned about, it’s having a sound engine that will provide them years of good service.

Engine Compartment Inspection

Your preliminary, five-minute inspection should have told you enough about the condition of the car to have spotted any major defects. You know the car is fairly clean, and your subsequent test-drive should have further solidified your hunches about the vehicle. Now it’s time to perform a more thorough inspection.

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Detailed Inspection

If the vehicle in question has passed your “five-minute” inspection and performed well during the road test, you are now back at the dealership or private party location and you’re still interested enough to continue the examination. This time the inspection is going to be a little more thorough. You are now looking both for signs that indicate potential problems, as well as accumulating “points”.

Points, for lack of a better term, are strikes against the vehicle. None of these points by themselves would be big enough factor to keep you from purchasing the car, but added together and written in your notebook, can be used in your negotiation with the seller to adjust the price. The seller can choose to either have these points fixed or knock down the price (unless it was spectacularly low). He can bring the condition up to the point where you would be willing to pay the asking price, or if he isn’t willing to deal with repairs, these points should add up to a reduction in the price, based on some ballpark estimate of what the potential repairs could cost (call a trusted shop for estimates).

For instance, if you find a small amount of brake fluid seepage around the brake master cylinder where it is mounted on the firewall (you can tell it’s brake fluid that’s leaking because it will wrinkle the paint on the firewall), this is not uncommon. It may have been simply the result of a sloppy job of topping off the cylinder, or the master cylinder. Even in the latter case, replacement of most master cylinders is not difficult, and a new cylinder isn’t terribly expensive. The potential need for a master cylinder replacement should become a bargaining chip for you. On the other hand, seeing similar leakage around the power steering lines of a power rack-and-pinion steering unit (such as is found on most front-wheel-drive cars) could be much more serious. The lines can be expensive to buy and to install if you’re going to have to buy and to install if you’re going to have your mechanic do the work, and if the rack-and-pinion itself is leaking, this is a serious repair that could cost $500 or more. If you spot a leak in this area, this is not a bargaining chip, it’s a reason to pass up this particular vehicle.

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Premium Used Cars

The Haynes Used Car Buying Guide

If the battery is not the original equipment battery, check the label. Usually mounted on top, the label has information on the date the battery was first sold, in the form of numbered dots that are punched out. One is punched out to indicate the year, and others indicate the month sold. By comparing the date it was sold to the number of months of its advertised life will give you an exact idea of how much useful life the battery has left. A battery due to be replaced is another bargaining chip for you.

Look over the battery hold-downs and the battery box itself. Is there a battery hold-down at all and is it the original part? Batteries need to be securely mounted in the vehicle to prevent damage to the battery itself and to the engine compartment and nearby wiring, hoses, etc. If the original hold-down needs to be installed. Rope or bungee cords aren’t enough to prevent vibration damage to the battery and potential acid spills.

The battery tray or box should be examined for signs of serious corrosion. Batteries that aren’t maintained, where corrosion has been allowed to grow on the terminals and migrate down the hold-downs onto the vehicle’s battery tray, can eventually become serious enough to cause the battery tray to disintegrate. The corrosion then attacks the unibody itself. If the battery is a type with removable cell covers (not a “maintenance-free” type), pull them out to see if the electrolyte level is up to the mark (usually a split ring inside). A battery with a low level could indicate either that it hasn’t been maintained, or that the vehicle charging system is overcharging, something to note for your mechanic to test.

Many cars have electrical components in the engine compartment that you can visually examine. On the engine, look at the distributor cap for cracks or signs or carbon tracking. Look at the spark plug wires – they should be clean, neatly-routed and free of cuts, abrasion spots or exhaust burns, and the same for secondary wire from the distributor cap to the coil. Many cars have their main electrical-system relay boxes in the engine compartment, either near the battery or along the cowl/firewall area. Pop the plastic cover off the relay box and look inside. Usually the inside of the plastic cover has a diagram to indicate which relay is for which system. Don’t be alarmed if there is a relay or two missing.

On conventional batteries, pry the cell covers off and check the electrolyte  level – a really low level is another indication the vehicle’s owner wasn’t performing routine maintenance.


Excessive battery acid and corrosion near the battery often indicate an overcharging condition. Have a mechanic check this out.

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Detailed Inspection

Examine the engine’s exhaust manifold(s) for signs of cracks, leaks or stains. Stains could be from continual oil drips from a leaky valve cover gasket or other component, and cracks or blown-out exhaust gaskets could create dangerous exhaust-gas leaks. You can listen for sounds of an exhaust leak when the engine is running, or look for gray, white or black streaks on the cast-iron exhaust manifold. The streaks should lead you right to the crack or leaky gasket.

Brackets and adjusters for the various belt-driven engine accessories should be examined for any looseness, missing bolts, or cracks. Broken or loose brackets can cause accessories like the fan, power steering pump, water pump, alternator and air-conditioning compressor to not only lose belts but even fail before their time due to running misaligned.

If the vehicle you are examining is a front-wheel-drive car, then pay close attention to the boots on the CV (constant-velocity) joints. Most cars have an inner and outer CV joint on each side of the vehicle (left and right driveaxles), each of which is covered by a rubber boot. The CV joints are expensive to replace, and are packed with grease, and the rubber boots protect them from dirt, corrosion and moisture. Check the boots by hand by flexing or squeezing them to look for cracks or tears. A torn CV boot that has all of the grease from inside is a signal that the joints will need replacement shortly due to the invasion of dirt and moisture. Depending on the make and model of the vehicle, you may be able to check the CV boots from the engine compartment, otherwise, check what you can from above and do other CV joints from underneath the vehicle.

If you’re looking at a private-party car that hasn’t been detailed, the condition of the car’s battery may indicate what kind of maintenance the vehicle has been accustomed to. Often motorists pay no attention to a battery until the day it malfunctions and the vehicle is stranded somewhere. First look at the condition of the battery terminals and posts. Are they clean of covered with fuzzy corrosion?

  • If you see dark color when you drop some  of the brake fluid on a white card, the fluid is old and/or contaminated and should be replaced.
  • Many newer vehicles with manual transmissions have a hydraulic clutch system – its master cylinder (arrow) should be near the brake master cylinder
  • If from the engine compartment you can access any of the drive axle boots on a front-wheel drive car, do so while checking the engine, otherwise do it during your under-car checks or ask your mechanic to check them.
  • This situation on a battery post is a sign of maintenance neglect – an owner who routinely had the hood open for servicing and checking would have found and fixed this corrosion before it got this far.

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