For buying new cars test-driving is passe

For buying new cars test-driving is passe

Charles van Stone with the Chevrolet Camaro he bought online without taking a single test drive at his home in Shepherds town. NYT

True, the generous policies of many online retailers reduce the risks, letting items be returned with little more than the effort of repacking them for shipping and a request for credit card charges to be reversed.

It’s not nearly so simple to undo the sale of a car or a truck. So there were raised eyebrows at, an online lease transfer service, when it discovered a significant increase in the number of people who closed a deal through its website without so much as sliding behind the steering wheel of their new vehicles.

“We found the number of people who skipped the test drive more than doubled since 2007,” John Sternal, a company spokesman, said.

As for the reasons behind the increase, Sternal speculates that it may have to do with the type of transaction the website is brokering. “I think a lot of people feel the shorter-term commitment that comes with assuming the remainder of someone else’s lease kind of limits the downside risk,” he said.

Oren Weintraub, founder of a car-buying consultancy, Authority Auto, and a former sales manager at a large Southern California Ford dealership, says that when he negotiates a new lease or purchase on behalf of a client, he strongly recommends a test drive. Even so, he estimated, as many as a third of his customers just do not think it is that important.

“Generally these are people who know what they want, whether it’s because they’re very brand-loyal or they’ve fallen in love with the styling of a particular model,” Weintraub said. “Same goes for buyers who are strictly interested in getting the best deal, and those with limited choices like a big family that needs a nine-passenger vehicle with 4-wheel drive.”

Charles Van Stone, a retired human resources executive and well-read car enthusiast who drives a brilliant orange 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS, is among those whose attraction to a specific model makes a test drive redundant.

“I never test-drive a car, but I do subscribe to five different car magazines,” said Stone of Sheperdstown, “So by the time I’ve read all these different opinions and finally sit behind the wheel, I have every reason to believe it’s going to be exactly what I wanted.”

Other factors may be at work. Improvements in the overall quality of new cars and trucks are likely to play a role, said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm.

“Based on the research we do for our annual Vehicle Satisfaction Awards, it’s fair to say there really aren’t any bad cars anymore,” Peterson said. “I think consumers are picking up on that, so they feel more confident they’re making a good decision.”

Peterson also suggested that much of the credit for this surge in confidence was because of new technology that enabled a buyer to examine virtually every aspect of a new model they were interested in on their computer screen.

“There’s more information online than ever before, from written reviews and videos Mini USA, said that roughly 85 percent of Mini buyers had used the extensive customization features on the brand’s website to design the car they wanted before they arrived at the dealer. Even so, customers generally want to at least drive the car around the block.

“It’s rare that someone would email that configuration to the dealer to have it built without taking a test drive, unless they were already a Mini owner looking for a replacement for their current car,” he said. McDowell acknowledged that the capability for online customization had changed the test-drive experience in subtle ways. “About a third of all Mini owners place their order and wait for their dream Mini to be built, so even though they’re not driving the exact car they intend to purchase, most of them will drive one similar to it.”

Yet buyers like Scott Kerschbaumer can do without the dealership audition altogether. Kerschbaumer, who runs the Esspa Kozmetika day spa in Pittsburgh with his wife, Eva, said he was more than happy to bypass conventional showrooms when he leased a new Cadillac CTS sedan last spring.

“I just refuse to go to dealerships, so I did all the negotiating via email, and the only time I saw the salesman was when I went to sign the paperwork,” he said. “I know it sounds kind of strange, but I’d never even sat in a CTS before the dealer handed me the keys and I drove it home.”

Kerschbaumer said he and his wife were pleased with their new car, but admitted that his comfort level in not taking the test drive had as much to do with his situation as with the vehicle. “For me, the only way this works is with a new car, and one that I’m leasing, not buying,” he said. “That way, even if I don’t really like it I’m not stuck making payments on it for the next five years.”

Of course, not everyone who shuns test drives has the same aversion to dealerships.
Van Stone, the Camaro SS owner, still prefers to buy his cars the old-fashioned way – walking into the showroom and going mano-a-mano with a sales representative. But he has only test-driven one of the nearly two dozen vehicles he’s bought over the last 50 years.

Admittedly, Van Stone’s penchant for buying factory hot rods like his bright orange Camaro SS helps to improve the odds that he’ll end up liking his new ride.
“Whether it’s because of my emotional connection to the car or all the reading I’ve done, I have never been disappointed,” he said. “I’ve never bought a car and thought ‘Uh-oh, this was a mistake.”

Of course, Van Stone readily admits that forgoing the test drive is not for everybody.
“If you’re turning a car over every two years you’re not so worried about getting stuck with something you don’t like,” he said. “If you’re buying a car with the intention of keeping it a long time, though, the test drive becomes a much more important thing.”