Car buying memo: take the demo

This is NOT the author, nor is it how the author recommends demo driving a car.

This is NOT the author, nor is it how the author recommends demo driving a car.

To tell you the advent of the Internet has changed our lives should come as no surprise; you’re reading this online. And that the Internet’s pervasive prominence has changed the face of retailing certainly isn’t news – simply ask any one-time employee of Borders how its business model stacked up against that of Amazon.com.  Sure, Borders provided a great shopping experience, along with drinkable coffee. But in its death the obit was written by countless customers who never bought there. Rather, they stopped in, saw something they liked and went online to buy it – from some entity other than Borders.

Of course, the prominence of online shopping continues to influence the buying and selling of automobiles. The showroom environment has also changed, although perhaps not as much as the recent 40% drop in retail activity (annual new car and truck sales) would suggest it should. Speaking to these ongoing changes is news from LeaseTrader.com, a business site connecting those consumers wanting an automotive lease with those lessees hoping to get out of their automotive commitment. According to the site, roughly 6.5 percent of all lease takeovers happen blindly, with prospects completely removed from the actual inspection or test drive of the vehicle.

Ours – to be sure – is a relatively unscientific, anecdotal observation, but an educated guess suggests an increasing number of new car shoppers, regardless of their path to ownership, are also skipping the test drive. Part of that is dictated by the online process, removing the consumer from the showroom or new car demo. And part of it – we’ll continue to guess – is the assumption on the part of many consumers that new cars are solidly engineered and carefully constructed. Even the cheapest car – they think – has to be acceptable, in that so many others have bought it. Add to the above circumstance work-and-play schedules that are overbooked, along with the nationwide reluctance of car buyers to get ensnarled in the buying process, and you have a shopping experience tainted by benign neglect.

We continue to think the new car – and certainly used car – demo drive is one of the most important (second only to affordability) aspects of the buying decision. With the advancements in car design and construction, along with the very real intrusion on that process by government, there has never been a greater need to experience the product before committing to its purchase or lease. Certainly, cars today are more reliable than ever, but they’re also more complex than ever. And for every enhancement in powertrain performance or suspension technology, there is one more initiative (or a dozen) on the part of regulators impacting that performance.

A recent shopping experience underscored the importance of taking a demo. With the need for a third car at a second home, the shopping process – which began with the Mazda2, worked its way past Ford’s Focus and (finally) settled on Subaru’s Forester – was necessarily abbreviated by what we thought was an immediate need. Yet while I had driven several Subaru products over the last several years, I had not driven the redesigned Forester since, well, its redesign. The area dealer offered a drive, and we happily accepted.

To be sure, the demo was – on one level – disappointing. The car chosen, with an equipment level similar to what we were considering, was a brand new, parked-on-the-lot Forester, rather than one devoted to demo use with appropriate break-in mileage. And it was slow (SLOW), barely able to get out of its own way in the ten minute, in-the-city lap. If this was a first or second car, with the expectation that I’d be spending some 15,000 miles behind the wheel, we would have probably – based on initial impression – shopped elsewhere. But with the belief that the standard, normally aspirated Forester would meet our occasional needs, along with the very real need need to make a decision, we made the agreement.

Thankfully, a thousand miles later the Forester is beginning to break-in, its throttle response much improved. That doesn’t, however, diminish the importance of a demo drive to the process; we may have made the purchase decision in spite of the new car’s initial performance, but at least we knew its performance parameters before signing the purchase agreement. Over the phone – or online – would not have provided information, only intuition.

Despite the update from LeaseTrader.com, we’d encourage those shopping for a car to fully evaluate all that goes into a new car purchase or lease. The car’s drivability may not be your overriding concern, but that – in combination with showroom location, environment and the dealer’s commitment to your ongoing satisfaction – should be on your car buying bucket list. And you can bring the bucket with you…