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December 25, 2011

News & Features

Buy before you try: Shoppers purchase cars without a test drive

The New York Times

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(Illustration by Sara Kennedy)

At a time when consumers have become accustomed to buying flat-screen televisions from Amazon without seeing the picture quality and ordering shoes from Zappos without trying them on, is it any wonder that some would buy a vehicle without ever taking a test drive?

Undoing the sale of a car or a truck isn't nearly as simple as returning a pair of shoes, however. So there were raised eyebrows at LeaseTrader.com, 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," says John Sternal, a company spokesman.

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Charles Van Stone bought this Chevrolet Camaro online without taking a single test drive. (Vanessa Vick/The New York Times)

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 says.

Oren Weintraub, founder of a car-buying consultancy, Authority Auto, says that when he negotiates a new lease or purchase on behalf of a client, he strongly recommends a test drive. Even so, he estimates that 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 says. "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 four-wheel drive."

Charles Van Stone, a retired 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," says Stone, of Sheperdstown, W.Va. "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."

Improvements in the overall quality of new cars and trucks are also likely contributing to the change, says 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 says. "I think consumers are picking up on that, so they feel more confident they're making a good decision."

Peterson suggests that much of the credit for this surge in confidence is because of new technology that enables buyers to examine virtually every aspect of a new model on their computer screen.

"There's more information online than ever before, from written reviews and videos to newer features that allow you to see 360-degree views of the car you're considering, right down to the color and options you want," he says.

Van Stone says he's test-driven only one of the nearly two dozen vehicles he's bought over the past 50 years.

Admittedly, Van Stone's penchant for buying factory hot rods like his Camaro 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 says. "I've never bought a car and thought 'Uh-oh, this was a mistake.' "

Van Stone adds, though, 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 says. "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."

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