Attention Moderators: PLEASE STICKY! It has come to my attention that some people have come to us at dodgeintrepid.net with what we would call lemons. The goal of this checklist is to prevent someone from accidentally buying a lemon.
So you want to get an Intrepid, Concorde, LHS, 300M, Vision or New Yorker? If so, you need to be aware of the problems that typically occur on them and inspect for them. You also need to check the routine, but obviously forgotten things. Follow this list and the used car salesman will fear you as much as he fears me and my friends!
Before you even look at the car
, get a Carfax report on it! This will tell you if the car you are looking at has a clear title which is probably one of the most important things you can check! A Carfax report can uncover evidence of odometer fraud, salvage title (rebuilt junkers are worth MUCH less) and other nasties. This is CRITICAL if you are buying a car in or near an area that got hit by a hurricane or other flood.
Know the NADA book value of the car. This is almost always less than the Kelly Blue Book value and is what your insurance company will give you for the car if it gets totaled. Loan agencies also go by the NADA value when deciding loan amounts.
Before you even turn the key for a test drive inspect the following:
Check the body for Bondo or body lead repairs: this can be done with a magnet. Real steel panels will pull the magnet, Bondo or body lead will not. This can uncover hidden repairs that the car dealer really would like you to not see. These repairs usually don't hold up too well and may start flaking paint sooner than the rest of the car and can indicate that the car was in a major accident. In any case, it reflects that the owner chose to not spend the money to do the job right. A quick once over on each major panel will suffice.
Check the bumpers. Look for evidence of impact, especially on the lower portion of the bumper. A car that has been in a minor rear end collision may have a bumper that looks fine but has some cracking on the bottom where it connects to the rest of the car, the same it true for the front.
Check the headlights. If you find what looks like a distinct water line inside them, BEWARE, it's probably a flood car. Lights are expensive to change so they usually don't swap them out when restoring a flooded vehicle. Condensation isn't necessarily an indication of a flooded car but it does mean that the lamp isn't sealed well. Fogged up lights are a thing you can use to argue the price a bit, but almost all used cars will have them especially if they are older than 5 years old.
The same water line can be seen on the tail lights as well if the car really got drowned.
Check the fitting of the doors.... they should close tightly. If they don't or are difficult to latch, the frame may be bent. Check under the car for evidence of this.
A bent frame is a deal breaker, it's not economically repairable by a shop and it's not something that most automotive hobbyists can fix. The car will never drive the same again.
Water damage can be repaired, but it is difficult, especially if you are unskilled with electrical systems. Problems may appear later as corrosion sets in if it isn't repaired properly. Since it takes so long to do this right, nobody repairs it right. If you get a REALLY good deal (say at least 50% off of NADA book), you might go for it if you feel like a challenge.
Check the hood line. A car that has taken a frontal impact may have a different hood to fender gap on one side than the other. This may be accompanied by a headlight that has condensation buildup, an indication that the headlight housing has cracked. Now, this doesn't necessarily make the car bad, I bought mine at a greatly reduced price in this condition and it was easily repaired.
Check the brakes. If the pads are gone or nearly gone or the rotors are worn out, you can use this as a bargaining chip.
Check the tires. Check to see if they still have good tread and if the wear pattern is even. Check the wheels while you are at it, if it's an alloy, make sure it's not corroded or pitted and if it's steel, make sure it isn't excessively rusty. Minor curb damage to the wheel is purely cosmetic but make sure it isn't bent.
Check the CV axles at the front of the car. The CV joint boots should be intact and not leaking.
Inspect the suspension as much as you can. A rough indicator of strut condition can be found by pushing down hard on the car on one corner. If it bounces more than once, the struts may be worn out.
The easiest way to spot a flood car is to use your nose. A moldy or musty smell is a bad sign. Also, check for evidence that the seats have been removed. Seats can be removed for a number of reasons including sound system installation and sound deadening but it could also be evidence that the car's interior has been gutted for other reasons.... such as flood cleanup!
Fold back a bit of carpet in the trunk if possible, look for mud or water lines.
Rust should not be found on the interior of the car except in small amounts near A/C ducts where small amounts of condensation can cause very light surface rust on some under dash panels.
Look for loose fitting panels. These will rattle when you go down the road and could indicate that the car has been improperly repaired or the interior was abused.
Smoker cars are hard to clean and deodorize.... It's worth a discount!
Verify that all listed features are indeed present!
Often a seller will say a car has ABS when it doesn't due to a misconception that they all came with it. This is not true.... and some option packages are odd. A decked out car with leather, premium sound and a trip computer could be equipped without ABS in the later years! Mine is such a car. If the car has traction control, it has ABS as well. ABS can be verified by the presence of the ABS fuses under the hood and the presence of the ABS module under the hood; traction control is verified by the presence of a "TRAC OFF" button on the dash.
Check to make sure the seat belts work right.
Under the hood checks that MUST be performed:
Check for LEAKS. Most leaks are easily repaired, but a couple are quite expensive to repair. The main seals on the engine are expensive to repair as are transaxle leaks coming from anywhere except the transaxle pan and cooling lines. Coolant leaks coming from the block are an indication of a blown headgasket or a cracked block. If you see this, inspect VERY carefully, a cracked block is pretty much unrepairable. If you are lucky, a coolant leak near the block will be from a hose that has burst near the block or a loose thermostat housing, both are economically fixed.
Leaks from the steering system are expensive to fix. Even the hoses are a bit pricey but a leaking rack or pump is quite expensive to repair.
A shady dealer will often try to hide an oil leak by steam cleaning the engine but evidence of a leak will still exist.... you'll just have to look a little closer. Inspect the valve cover gaskets.... these will slowly seep continuously wile the engine runs and will only be clean for a few days at most after a steam cleaning. A steam cleaned engine alone is not necessarily a bad thing, some people really take pride in there cars and do indeed keep their engine bays clean. I know, I'm one of them.
Check the fluids!
First gens (1993-1997) use green conventional coolant, Second gens (1998 and up) use the orange HOAT coolant. In either case, it should be clean and transparent. Make sure the coolant bottle isn't cracked.
The oil level should be full and not too black. Dark oil that is due for a change is OK but if it's jet black, that's an indication that routine maintenance has not been performed regularly. It's not necessarily a terminal thing unless you hear strange noises when you start the car or it's a 2.7, which is quite intolerant of slack off maintenance. Oil that is frothy or has an appearance of a "chocolate milkshake" is contaminated with water or coolant. The engine probably has a bad head gasket or in the case of the 2.7, a bad water pump is a possibility as well. An engine with oil in this condition may need to be rebuilt.
This should be pink and not have a burnt odor. Slightly brown fluid needs a change but is not necessarily a cause for concern as long as it and the filter is changed soon after purchase. BLACK transaxle fluid IS a HUGE concern..... it would be a deal breaker for me as it indicates that the transaxle has seriously overheated and is about to fail. Now if they are willing to cut $2000 off the price so you can rebuild the transaxle then the deal might be back on.
It should be yellow in color. Brown brake fluid should be exchanged as it has accumulated moisture. In either cases, it should be free of debris. BLACK brake fluid is an indication that the fluid is way too old or that the rubber parts in the system have decayed.
Power Steering Fluid:
Should be either light brown, clear or red depending on the type of hydraulic fluid. Again, black is BAD.
Inspect for rust, especially around the strut towers.
Inspect the hoses and the belts. Look for frayed belts and hoses that have bulges, especially near connection points.
Look for frayed wiring.
Check the air filter.... make them put a new one in if it's nasty.
Check the battery terminals. This may be a bit difficult on a 2nd gen where the battery is buried.
If the engine is a 3.2 or 3.5L, ask when the last time the timing belt was changed. If they don't know or can't provide documentation of the change, assume it needs one! On 1st gen 3.5L engines a snapped timing belt will strand you but not damage the engine, on a 2nd gen 3.2 or 3.5, engine damage may result. In either case, beware of this hidden menace.
On 1st gens, check the spark plug wires. The insulation shouldn't be cracked.
Checks to perform while the engine is running but the car is parked:
Listen to the engine while you start it and shortly after. Some clicking noise is normal for the first few seconds of operation, but it should quiet down quickly. Excessive noise means the engine is worn. This requires some experience to judge, you might bring a friend to give a second opinion.
Look for smoke from the exhaust. White smoke/steam is water in the combustion chamber which could be simple condensation or a bad head gasket. If the steam has a sweet antifreeze smell, the head gasket is certainly blown. Black smoke means the engine is running too rich, it will need a tuneup at least. Blue smoke means the engine is burning oil and is worn.
Check for any warning lights. if there is a check engine light, check for codes!
To check codes, perform the key dance. Turn the key from OFF to ON (the position right before start) three times within 5 seconds. The sequence is like this: OFF-ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON. On 1st gens, the code will blink out on the check engine light, on 2nd gens the code will be displayed in the odometer. Look up the code before you buy...it could be a cheap fix or something major.
Check the power windows and locks, make sure they work right.
Check the stereo. Make sure the cassette and or CD players work and that all the speakers work.
Check the headlights. Make sure that both work and the high/low beam switch is working.
Check the instrument cluster lights, they should come on with the parking lights and headlights.
Check the rear lights and license plate lights.
Check the brake lights...all three of them.
Make sure the turn signals work.
Check the horn.
Check the cruise control button.
Check the A/C...it should cool quickly.
Check the heater. Make sure it changes from cold to hot when the temp is increased and make sure it goes back to cold when you reduce the temp.
Check to see that the fan speed knob works right too.
With the engine on and the car parked, move the steering back and forth. Listen for any unusual clunks, squeals or groans. It should be pretty quiet until brought to the limit where it will naturally get noisier. There should be very little play in the steering.
Listen to the exhaust. A stock exhaust is fairly quiet with the exception of the 300M Special which is a bit more vocal. In any case the sound should be mellow. It shouldn't rattle at all whether it's stock or aftermarket. A rotten egg smell may indicate issues with the catalytic converter or bad fuel. A bad catalytic converter will usually throw a check engine light with a "catalyst efficiency" code.
Drive with the stereo off so you can listen for any unusual noises.
Check to see if the engine idle slows down a few minutes after it starts. If it keeps idling high it has some issues.
Check the steering while driving. Again, there should be no noises and very little if any play in the steering. If you have a smooth, straight road you do a rough check of the alignment as well.
Check the brakes. Braking should be fairly quiet but responsive and braking force should be equal on both sides of the car.
Check the transaxle. Accelerate at mid throttle until all 4 gears have been run through, you will reach about 50MPH during this test so be sure the road is appropriate for that speed. The gear changes should be smooth but not drawn out. Next, test the downshift by accelerating at WOT. When you put your foot down, the transaxle should downshift without slipping at 50MPH. (at high speeds it might remain in overdrive, this is OK) Be on the lookout for very mushy shifts at WOT and shifts that are overly harsh. A "bump shift" at low speeds is normal, especially when in dense traffic as is a small bump when you apply fuel after coasting. If it has Autostick, make sure it works.
A "buzz-tick" noise while shifting may be noticed at low speeds if you have the windows down in traffic as the transmission sifts from 2nd to 1st. This is normal and is the sound of the solenoid pack as it is energized to redirect fluid to the appropriate clutch packs. You can also hear this sometimes when you go into reverse.
Check the engine performance: The engine should have a smooth idle. A hint of a lumpy idle on the overhead cam engines (2.7, 3.2 and 3.5) is normal but it shouldn't be very noticeable. The engine should rev all the way to redline fairly freely and should remain smooth all the way to redline. Keep in mind the engine will only rev up to the maximum when the transaxle is in gear, in park or neutral it WILL NOT rev up all the way, this is by design. The engine shouldn't misfire or hesitate. Keep an eye on the temp gauge. It should settle out just a nip under the middle mark under cruising.
Check the handling: The suspension should control movement fairly well. The ride shouldn't be overly jarring nor should it feel like a land yacht from the dark ages of Detroit (ever driven a Lincoln or Caddy from the 80s? It shouldn't feel like that!). Corners should be taken with confidence at the posted speed advisories. Cars with the Performance Handling Package (300M PHP, 300M Special and Intrepid R/T) will ride a nip rougher but not too harshly; it should still be fairly comfy.
If all the above checks out you can be fairly confident that the car you are looking at will serve you well for quite a while. I hope you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine.