The New York Times has a story that’s fascinating in its own right: the number of people leasing a car on leasetrader.com without first test-driving the car has doubled since 2007. Troubling stuff for most auto enthusiasts among us, but probably not much of a surprise to readers on the retail side of the business. One auto broker explains the most common reasons for taking this leap of faith:
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. 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.
But, as one “enthusiast” explains, some consumers are just so well informed, they don’t need to drive their car before they buy it. That’s what they subscribe to magazines for!
Here’s how Charles Van Stone, “retired human resources executive and well-read car enthusiast,” sees it:
I never test-drive a car, but I do subscribe to five different car magazines. 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… Whether it’s because of my emotional connection to the car or all the reading I’ve done, I have never been disappointed. I’ve never bought a car and thought “Uh-oh, this was a mistake.”
Given that Mr Van Stone most recently ended up in a Camaro SS, it’s safe to say that how it drives per se wasn’t his overriding concern anyway. Which is a good thing, because if a “well-read car enthusiast” asked me, I’d have told him to drive the more playful V6 before committing to the SS. But then, my idea of what an “enthusiast” might be interested isn’t the only one… and ultimately, if the guy is happy, he’s happy. That’s all that matters, especially with a car like the Camaro.
But the strangest thing about Mr Van Stone’s representation of the test-drive-free lifestyle is his reliance on the automotive media. Though I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see analysts reference the rise of online research as one possible explanation for the test-drive downturn, I was not expecting the Times to quote someone letting his buff book subscriptions “take the wheel” in an auto buying decision. On the one hand, it’s a rare show of relevance for the mainstream automotive media. On the other hand, their champion is a guy who bought his car without even driving it. If such is the modern automotive enthusiasm, I wouldn’t rush to overstate the vitality or relevance of the media outlets that nurtured it.
At the end of the day, no form of media can replace a test drive. No Youtube video, no spec sheet, no eloquent review is a substitute for actually driving the car you are considering committing to. At least, it can’t if you actually care about the details of a driving experience. And you should: understanding the nuances of car control can make you a more efficient, courteous, and above all, a safer driver. Conversely, the fact that more people are buying cars without having ever driven them does not speak well of our collective relationship with these powerful, dangerous, expensive machines. And though the car industry needs people to be passionate about the act of driving in order to thrive (and not merely survive), its collective answer to this trend thus far has been to introduce more distracting gizmos. Apparently it really isn’t important to drive cars anymore… as long as we keep buying them.