There are a multitude of checks drivers can make on a potential used-car candidate ahead of their purchase, and some of the easiest and most important of them can be carried out around the wheels.
Cars are devices made of parts and components, many of which will eventually wear out, fail, and require replacement. And, in the area immediately surrounding a car’s wheels are a number of components that can be inspected quickly and easily -- giving shoppers an idea of the shape the vehicle is in, and whether or not some repairs or replacements of key components are in their future.
Here’s a closer look at some important checks to make when you get down low and have a look around the wheels of the ride you’re considering.
Look for Alignment Issues: Look at the way the tires are wearing across their treads. Heavier wear on the inside or outside of the treads typically indicates an alignment-related issue, possibly indicating that some part of the vehicle’s suspension is in need of attention. Steer the front wheels so you can see across the treads to make the check. Rear tires can show signs of alignment problems, too. If the vehicle’s alignment is healthy, the tires should wear evenly across the entire width of the treads. Scrubbing or excessive wear at the edges of the tires, that is, where the treads meet the sidewall, may indicate an alignment issue, too.
Look for Tire Wear and Damage: A careful and educated look at a vehicle’s tires can reveal a multitude of potential problems if present. Tread depth is a key indicator of remaining tire life, so bring a tread gauge along for the test drive to confirm the seller isn’t trying to pass off a badly worn set of tires that need to be changed. Tires should have 6/32” of an inch of tread depth, measured at the shallowest groove. Tires with 4/32” of tread or less should be considered for replacement in the near future. No tread depth gauge handy? Stick a Canadian penny into the treads, with the Queen’s crown facing down. If you can see the top of the Queens crown, the tires will need replacing soon.
Ditto if the tires have any deep, heavy cracks, deep gouges out of the rubber or bulbous “lumps” protruding from the sidewall. These typically indicate that the tire has had a heavy impact -- possibly with a pothole. A heavy crack in a tire or an unsightly lump indicates that the tire is damaged and should be replaced. Run your hand around the inside of the tire to feel for lumps, too.
Look for Brake Wear, if Possible: Depending on the design of the wheels of the vehicle you’re considering, you may be able to see the all-important brake rotor through the spokes of the wheel. It’s a shiny, perfectly round metal disc with a large metal caliper attached to provide stopping force. Though a full brake inspection by a mechanic is a good idea ahead of your used-ride purchase, looking at those rotors through the wheels, where possible, can provide some insight on the health of the braking system. The brake rotors should be metallic, smooth and shiny. Signs of potential issues include rings of rust, deep grooves or corrosion on the face of the rotor.
Look for Leaky Shocks: Look up inside of the wheel-well above the wheels for the shock absorbers. These are typically metal tubes, possibly surrounded by a beefy-looking spring assembly. A mechanic should fully inspect the suspension of the vehicle you’re considering for maximum peace of mind, but a glance up at the shock absorbers can show trouble signs too, if present. Mostly, you’re looking for an oily drip or seepage of fluid out of the shock absorber and down its tubular body. Signs of fluid leakage out of the shock absorber assembly typically indicate the need to replace that shock absorber.
Look for Leaky Rear Drum Brakes: Is the vehicle you’re considering equipped with rear drum brakes and/or rear-wheel drive? Look at the inside of the rear wheels for an oily splatter of fluid. If present, the model you’re considering could be suffering from a dangerous brake fluid leak. The vehicle needs to see a mechanic immediately and shouldn’t be driven.
Look for Wheel Damage: Look closely at the wheels themselves. Beyond the finish, pay attention to the condition of the “lip” around the wheel. This should be perfectly round, and any dents or flattened spots typically indicate the wheel was damaged by hitting something like a pothole or curb. Look for cracking in the metal of the wheel or evidence of a patch-up or repair job, especially around lip damage, which could indicate further issues. A damaged wheel, even if repaired, may cause vibrations, leaky tires, and more.