Would You Buy a Car Without Giving It a Test Drive?

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For car enthusiasts—and also just to consumers who are careful with their money—it’s a given that you must do a test drive before purchasing a vehicle. In fact, to scope out the options and make a wise decision, it’s a good idea to get behind the wheel of several competing car models. Nonetheless, more than 1 in 10 new-car buyers agree to spend tens of thousands of dollars on vehicles that they’ve never taken on the road.

Citing a new survey from Maritz Research, the Detroit Free Press reports that roughly 11.4% of consumers who purchased 2012 models didn’t bother to take the vehicle out for a spin before closing the deal.

To many, the test drive isn’t just smart, it’s essential, so skipping the step is crazy:

“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 cliché as perhaps it sounds, there’s that new-car smell that needs to be experienced firsthand and cannot be experienced over the Internet.”

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Speaking of the Internet, it’s the piles of research and reviews available via the worldwide web that some are using as substitutions for the old-fashioned test drive. Some buyers may also have experience driving older versions of the model they’re purchasing, and assume that the new model will drive pretty much the same.

Then there are the consumers who hate car sales employees and the car-buying experience so much that they’ll do anything—even skip a test drive—to make the transaction proceed more quickly. When the Detroit Free Press inquired why one consumer didn’t bother with a test drive when he bought a new Honda Fit a few years ago, his answer got right to the point: “Honestly, I hate dealing with car salesmen.”

Wow. When you’re willing to accept making a potentially bad choice on such a big-ticket item all to cut down on small talk with a smarmy sales staffer, that’s a lot of hate. It certainly provides more fodder for the argument that the car purchase is one of the most painful shopping experiences of all—one that might have to change to meet the desires of younger consumers.

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Last fall, the New York Times took note of data from LeaseTrader.com indicating a sharp rise in the number of consumers agreeing to take over a car lease in a transfer without every driving the vehicle. Then too, an auto industry consultant noted that many buyers were skipping the test drive at least partly because they hate car dealerships so much:

“A lot of people are leery of the face-to-face interaction with the dealer’s sales staff, so not taking a test drive allows them to avoid all the manipulation and game-playing.”

Buying is obviously a longer-term commitment than a lease, however, and experts and everyday consumers alike attest to the fact that a test drive will help drivers make smart decisions, if for no other reason than eliminating the unknown. According to Maritz’s survey, 80% of new-car buyers said the test drive was “very” or “somewhat” influential in their choice of purchase.

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Nonetheless, an apparently growing number of drivers are buying with a test drive—perhaps because they’re already familiar with the car, perhaps because they trust car reviewers better than themselves, perhaps because they assume all cars on the market today are decent enough, perhaps because they just don’t care much about how a car drives, and/or perhaps because they just really, really hate car dealerships and car salesmen and want to minimize their dealings with them.

It appears as if Canadians hate dealerships and sales staffers even more than Americans do: 26% of our northerly neighbors say they purchased a new car without test driving the model in question.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

5 comments
spence.miller
spence.miller

Blame the car salesmen for creating the worst possible purchasing environment I've ever been in.  The less time spent with them the better, and if that means forgoing a test drive then so be it.

Craig Jones
Craig Jones

In my experience car buyers who hate the car buying process or car sales people are ones who don't want to take some of the responsibility in solving their problem themselves by asking themselves important car buying questions to find out what exactly they need or want in a car or doing some product research so as they can narrow down their list of potential buys.

Jeff A. Taylor
Jeff A. Taylor

This just tells me that around 15% of the population is totally enthralled by marketing and can be convinced that they "want" something without any critical examination. Yeah, if you have already made up your mind that you must get a certain make and model, the test drive might be more of a chore.

But I cannot count how many times poking around in the cockpit of a vehicle has turned up deal-breakers, usually in the form of bad ergonomics. However, one recent Acura test drive did reveal a positively leaden driving experience in model universally described as "sporty" while a different Acura model was much more satisfying.

Guess which one we bought?

Albin
Albin

About the only consumer transaction even less pleasant than car buying is the competitive bidding for real estate, unfortunately both are pretty big tickets for most of us.   Failure to "test drive" is also failure to have a real detailed check out of the look and feel of all the little things inside and outside the car.  My guess is those who buy without at least driving a similarly equipped model of the car are urbanites who don't need all that much, don't much care, and right they are.  What would actually be more interesting is more demographic, geographic, gender, and car model detail about the non-test drivers.

DM101010
DM101010

When it came time to buy a used car three-weeks ago, my search included one-hour of time browsing an auction website to find a vehicle, and another 10-minutes the day this auction closed to make it mine.  Had it delivered to my house, and it was a great experience!  

PS: You guessed it, i'm a Millennial.

PPS: Stop calling us Gen Y.  Seriously.