Some do-it-yourself advice for used-car shoppers

Car shoppers are clearly excited about the 2002 models that are being rolled out. GM, Ford, and Toyota all reported record sales - up about 30 percent last month from October 2000 - thanks largely to the "0 percent" financing that dealers are offering.

Also on the rise: a glut of pre-owned vehicles that may encourage some buyers to take the used-car route. (Last year, 41 million used cars changed hands.)

Experts recommend taking a used vehicle to a mechanic before buying. But car buyers can also screen out problems by applying the following tips from AutoTrader.com, a website that lets people buy or sell cars online:

Take a test drive. Spend at least 30 minutes driving on different types of roadways to get a good indication of the car's condition and handling.

Check the steering. Point the wheels straight ahead, stick your head out the window, and watch the front tire while slowly turning the steering wheel. If you turn the wheel more than two inches before the tires move, the steering system could be damaged. Also, check power steering by turning the wheel all the way left and then right. If screeches are heard, the car may need a new power-steering pump or other costly repairs.

Look at the exhaust. Blue smoke indicates the need for an expensive engine overhaul. Black smoke may mean the car needs a tune-up or carburetor adjustment. White smoke is nothing to worry about initially. But if the smoke continues after 10 to 15 minutes, the radiator may be leaking water into the engine.

Examine brakes. Halfway through the test drive, stop the car and push the brake pedal down as far as possible - it should go no more than 1-1/2 inches toward the floor. Then, keep the pedal down for at least a minute. If the pedal sinks lower, the car could have serious brake problems.

Check the alignment. When it's safe to do so, release the steering wheel on a level, straight road to see if the car pulls to either side. This pulling could mean something as simple as improper tire pressure - or as serious as steering linkage out of alignment.

Listen while driving. Even if the weather is cold, drive with the window down to hear any unusual sounds. Even if you cannot identify the sounds, report them to the mechanic who inspects the car.

Note the engine idle. After driving, let the engine idle while the transmission is in park. If the engine accelerates, hesitates, or performs unevenly, the problem could be as simple as an idle adjustment or as serious as a carburetor overhaul. Tapping noises may mean the car needs expensive valve work.

Listen to the transmission. With the brake applied, shift from drive to reverse several times. If you hear a clank, the car may have transmission troubles. Any whining, jumping, or irregular performance while driving could indicate big problems.

If the car has a manual transmission and the engine revs when you step on the gas with your foot off the clutch and the car in gear, the clutch is slipping and may need replacing. If a knocking sound from the transmission is heard, press in the clutch. If the noise disappears, it's probably in the transmission; if it doesn't, problems could exist with the clutch.

Check the heater and air conditioner. With your hands over the vents, check the airflow and temperature. Run the A/C through all of its cycles. Banging or rumbling noises may mean the air compressor need replacing.

Check for inside leaks. A trip through a car wash, or hosing the car down, will show if the car has any obvious leaks.

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