Some shoppers skip test drive, study shows

DETROIT - Armed with online research, more than one in 10 new-car shoppers now buy vehicles without taking a test-drive, according to a recent study.

A marketing manager in Indianapolis, Andy Thedjoprasetyono, was one of them.

He bought a new 2008 Honda Fit four years ago without taking a test drive. Before setting foot in the showroom, he researched his purchase on Edmunds.com and Cars.com and in Motor Trend and Car & Driver magazines.

"Honestly, I hate dealing with car salesmen," he said in an email.

Buying a car often is the second-largest purchase most people will ever make. But some consumers are skipping the test drive, emboldened by familiarity gleaned from online research and previous experiences with a vehicle.

"I just find it quite fascinating and a little baffling," said Chris Travell, vice president of strategic consulting for Maritz Research, which conducted the survey. "As cliche as perhaps it sounds, there's that new-car smell that needs to be experienced firsthand and cannot be experienced over the Internet."

It's not just the Internet influencing car buyers. Some buyers just aren't very interested in cars and want to finish the buying experience quickly, he said.

It's a potentially troubling idea for dealers, who say the test drive can be a euphoric experience that often converts a wavering shopper to a committed buyer. It also might convert someone who has settled on a competitor's vehicle through online research, but then takes several test-drives and finds that something else feels better. The opportunity to move a shopper into a higher price point also is lost.

"My manager said, 'The feel of the wheel will seal the deal,' " said Philip Reed, a former dealership representative who now serves as senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com.

Ken Thomas, general manager of Telegraph Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Taylor, Mich., said a test drive is in the customer's best interest.

"Everything that you read isn't necessarily true," he said. "There's nothing online that tells you how that car feels. I enforce it with the salespeople that they have to at least offer a test drive with every customer."

The Maritz Research study, which surveyed 80,219 buyers of 2012 model-year vehicles, found that 11.4 percent didn't take a test drive. It's the first year the study has asked the question. It also found that 9.5 percent of 2012 car buyers used the Internet to schedule a test drive, up from 7.4 percent in 2010.

Overall, it found that about eight out of 10 buyers used the Internet to research their purchase before going to dealership.

Reed said he strongly recommends taking a test drive before making a decision. But he also suggested that car buyers use dealership websites to set up back-to-back test drives with three to five different dealerships in advance. That makes comparisons easy and allows you to maintain control of the buying process.

Some buyers are intimidated by the dealership experience, which is why dealers often allow shoppers to borrow vehicles for a few days.

"It's like trying on a suit," Reed said. "You're trying to find out: Does it fit me?"

Ann Arbor, Mich., auto dealership owner Howard Cooper, who is selling his business after 47 years in the industry, said he always advised his representatives to do as much as they could to persuade a buyer to take a test-drive.

"They can do a lot of research beforehand, but they really got to get a feel," Cooper said. "I don't think there's a better way to do it."

TRYING OUT A NEW VEHICLE:

Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, suggests a few things to keep in mind during a test drive:

u Drive the car the way you'd normally drive it. "If you take the car to the mountains, you better find a hill to climb," Reed said. "If you do a lot of freeway driving, you better merge. Go over some railroad tracks, go over some bumps. Get in and out of the car a few times. Is that easy to do?"

u Pay attention to how it feels. "Often a salesperson is hovering," Reed said. "This isn't a time to be social. It's a time to be paying attention to what your reactions are."

u If it's a used car, have a mechanic check it out before buying.

"There are certain things that only become apparent when the car is running," Reed said.

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