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How to Prepare for Shopping for a Pre-Owned SUV

Searching for your next vehicle can feel overwhelming; from figuring out finances to choosing what features matter most to you, car shopping is full of asking questions and making decisions. This can be especially true when shopping pre-owned because it presents a whole extra set of questions and decisions—thus, you might find yourself wondering if there’s anything specific you should be asking when searching through used SUVs for sale. You may also be wondering what to do when you do find an SUV you like and what to check for.

Before anything else, you need to start with understanding a few important differences that can greatly impact your shopping experience. For starters, it’s important to understand the difference between a CUV and an SUV; this may not impact which questions you ask, but it will help clarify your initial discussions.


Despite popular opinion, CUVs and SUVs are two different vehicle segments. A CUV—which stands for crossover utility vehicle—is a vehicle traditionally based on a car platform, also known as a car’s suspension and chassis. An SUV—which stands for sport utility vehicle—is a vehicle typically based on a truck platform. Crossovers typically drive more like a sedan but can have more cargo space, greater capability, etcetera than one. SUVs may not drive quite as smoothly as a sedan, but they often have a much broader range of capabilities, like those of a pickup.

It’s important to understand that, while there is a difference between a CUV and an SUV, many people put them both in the same category. This is even more true now as the popularity of the SUV has been on the rise. As the SUV becomes more commonplace, the lines between CUV and SUV become more blurred. This is due to ever-changing definitions of the SUV, as well as the evolving mechanics of SUVs and CUVs.

So, despite the indistinct lines of the CUV and the SUV, it is still good to understand the differences and recognize that, for some, there may be no difference at all. Don’t rule out a vehicle just because it’s labeled a CUV; also, don’t assume a vehicle labeled an SUV isn’t indeed a CUV.

When determining which questions to ask, it helps to know about the four different drivetrains a vehicle can be equipped with. This will also help you understand future maintenance and repair needs based on your SUV’s drivetrain. They each have different benefits, as well as associated maintenance.


There are four different types of drivetrains; while the two predominant kinds are rather clear-cut, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are often mistaken. Too often, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are used interchangeably; this is another case of blurred lines, but it can be far more frustrating to mix up than CUVs and SUVs. It can be challenging to know exactly what a vehicle is equipped with, as many manufacturers have their own labeling system; that’s why understanding the difference is important, so you know the right questions to ask.

All-wheel drive—also written as AWD—is ideal for on-road driving and provides extra traction when needed. There are two types of all-wheel drive. Full-time all-wheel drive sends torque to all four tires consistently during normal driving. Sensors monitor road conditions, and programming can divert more torque to the front or rear axles as needed for improved grip. If the vehicle’s system senses that the front wheels are slipping, it can send more torque to the rear wheels to bite into the ground and vice versa.

A vehicle can also be equipped with part-time all-wheel drive. Part-time all-wheel drive is when a vehicle is primarily front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive but becomes all-wheel drive when the conditions require it. This is done via sensors and programming as well, allowing the vehicle to make the call when it senses that the wheels are beginning to slip.

Four-wheel drive, as opposed to all-wheel drive, is used alongside two-wheel drive; four-wheel drive is never the only equipped drivetrain option. Four-wheel drive turns the front and rear axles at the same speed, and since the axles are locked together, they must spin at the same time and speed, despite road conditions. This is far from ideal if driving in normal road conditions. There needs to be some varying movement for the vehicle to move properly. The only time four-wheel drive is preferred is when conditions are icy and wet, which causes the wheels to slip, or when off-roading on loose terrain.

When the road is slippery, four-wheel drive can help ensure that both the front and rear wheels have some sort of grip. In these types of situations, the tires have the ability to slide, preventing them from binding up. Similarly, four-wheel drive can be beneficial when off-roading if stuck in mud or loose gravel, as well as when rock climbing. Mud and gravel react in a similar way to wet and icy surfaces. Rock climbing allows for wheels to grip, even if one wheel is on a surface and one is not, thereby helping the vehicle crawl over rocks.

It should be noted here that, in some cases, you may see the term 4X4. Though in some situations, this could mean that it is a four-wheel drive vehicle, that is not always the case. In some situations, 4X4 could be applied to an all-wheel drive vehicle.

The predominant front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive are self-explanatory; these are just different versions of two-wheel drive, using either the front or rear axles to move the vehicle. Two-wheel drive vehicles typically cost less, weigh less, and are more fuel efficient; they’re also great for those who live in areas with mild weather. However, if you live in an area with lots of rain, ice, snow, etcetera, choosing a vehicle with all-wheel drive—or a vehicle with two-wheel drive that also offers four-wheel drive—may make more sense.

For Those Drivetrains All & Four

Once you know what type of drivetrain the vehicle has, you will know a bit more about what sort of maintenance it should have had and what else it should get down the road. Keep in mind that not all maintenance is one size fits all; it’s always best to check what the manufacturer recommends, which can typically be found in the owner’s manual. Maintaining a schedule for oil changes, alignment, tire rotations, etcetera, is vital for keeping your vehicle running smoothly. However, there are a few extra things that will need to be checked if you own an SUV that is all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

For instance, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles have a transfer case or a center differential; in some cases, a vehicle may have a front and rear differential. These components help deliver power to the wheels and, to do this effectively, they require special fluids. This fluid needs to be changed regularly, or the transfer case or differentials can become damaged.

Lastly, if the SUV in question is all-wheel drive, keep in mind that it is always recommended to replace all four tires at once, even if only one needs to be replaced. Having tires with varying tread depths can cause damage to your drivetrain. Keeping up on rotations will help the tires wear evenly; however, if one becomes damaged, you will need to replace the others.

What to Ask Before You Buy

Now that you know the differences between two of the most confusing aspects, you know where to start with your questions. Knowing whether a vehicle you like is a crossover or an SUV isn’t so important as it is helpful and clarifying; however, knowing to ask if the vehicle is all-wheel drive, two-wheel drive, or four-wheel drive is important. Don’t be afraid to ask, even if it says four-wheel drive right in the description. Some manufacturers use their own terms or use terms interchangeably, so you are better off just asking outright before you buy.

Another question to ask is if there is a recent maintenance report. If you can have a record of what was done and when it was done, it will be easier to determine when you need to schedule maintenance in the future. If you don’t take your vehicle to the location you purchased it at, a maintenance report can also be helpful for the person who services the vehicle next.

It is also a smart idea to ask where the vehicle came from. If the vehicle you are interested in came from an area with excessive ice and snow, there is a higher potential for rust from the roads being salted. Rust may not always be obvious to you or the person selling the vehicle. It’s better to hedge your bets by asking where it came from and if they’ve checked for rust damage.

Another great question to ask is how the vehicle was used by its previous owner. For sedans and similar on-road vehicles, you really only must worry about if the vehicle was used as a commuter, rental vehicle, or perhaps even for racing on a drag strip. With sport utility vehicles, not only is it good to know if it racked up tons of mileage in a short period of time, but it would also be good to know if it was used for off-roading. If the vehicle was used for heavy off-road use that involved crawling over rocks and going engine-deep in muddy water, then it definitely suffered more wear and tear in its lifetime.

Many dealerships offer some sort of car history report right on their website. However, if there is not one available or you aren’t buying from a dealer, don’t feel bad asking for one. It can be helpful to see how many owners a vehicle has had, if there were any reported accidents on the vehicle, and any other details you can get. Any vehicle—even a used vehicle—is a big investment, and you want to make sure you have all the information possible.

A Few Last Thoughts

Depending on the vehicle you are buying and who you are buying it from, it may have some sort of warranty. Asking if it is still under warranty and what the warranty covers are good ways to plan for the future. Maybe you are deciding between two vehicles, and one has a warranty, and one doesn’t; that could make or break the deal for you. It never hurts to ask.

Another thing to keep in mind is that any vehicle being used for extreme activities, such as off-roading, will most likely need extra attention. Brake pads and rotors will most likely need maintenance far sooner than most other vehicles. Air filters may become dirty faster, oil may need to be changed sooner—you get the picture. It may be more money and more work, but it is important to keep your vehicle running properly and to keep you safe.

Knowledge Is Power

The more you understand about the types of vehicles you are looking at, the easier it becomes to ask the right kinds of questions. This is the first step in securing the perfect used SUV—or, really, the perfect vehicle in general. It can better equip you for what lies ahead in vehicle ownership. Understand the differences, know what to look for, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, and you are sure to get an SUV that will keep you on the road for many years to come.