New year, new car? Tips from IAM RoadSmart

Blog post posted on 08/01/19 |

The new year is finally here and for a lot of us that means a fresh start; a new job, an expensive gym membership or the tempting thought of buying a new or used car.

However, today’s high-tech cars can be concealing unknown wallet-crunching problems. Fortunately, you don’t need a degree in electronics or a mobile diagnostic machine. Just follow our advice by Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart’s head of technical policy, and you’ll soon tell a trustworthy bargain from a troublesome money pit.

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, otherwise expensive problems are being stored up for the future. Ask for the service history and take time to look through it carefully. If the service record is seriously incomplete or missing - walk away, otherwise you could be footing the bill for someone else’s neglect.

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 parking brake (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. 


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.

Road test

Listen for suspension rattles and clunks over rough roads. Check gear-change smoothness, the cars steers straight ahead and 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. 

Learn to walk away

Keep your head and reject a 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 thousands more bargains out there.


Notes to editors:

1.       Tim Shallcross is IAM RoadSmart’s head of technical policy.

2.       IAM RoadSmart has a mission to make better drivers and riders in order to improve road safety, inspire confidence and make driving and riding enjoyable. It does this through a range of courses for all road users, from online assessments through to the advanced driving and riding tests. IAM RoadSmart is the trading name of all businesses operated by the UK’s largest road safety charity, the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and was formed in April 2016 combining the IAM, IAM Drive & Survive, PDS and IAM Driver Retraining Academy. The organisation has 92,000 members and campaigns on road safety on their behalf. At any one time there are over 7,000 drivers and riders actively engaged with IAM RoadSmart’s courses, from members of the public to company drivers, while our Driver Retraining Academy has helped 2,500 drivers to shorten their bans through education and support programmes.

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