By on November 11, 2011

The New York Times has a story that’s fascinating in its own right: the number of people leasing a car on 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.

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44 Comments on “Quote Of The Day: Score One For The Car Mags Edition...”

  • avatar

    Holy hell, I love me some redbone.

    • 0 avatar

      We have reached a point where test driving a car is unnecessary for many people. Cars have become so generic. Their quality is about the same. They will all outlast the payment book.

      Consume. Throw away. Repeat.

      And we are talking lease – not a commitment, really. If the car sucks, it just sucks for the length of the lease. Big deal.

      Leasing a car is like renting a house. You aren’t going to have a fit over a lot of any possible drawbacks because you aren’t in it long enough to care.

  • avatar

    Agree. Have been sure a number of times that I liked a car based on reading until the test drive and ended up disliking it. Usually after the drive, but sometimes before moving the car at all.

    Stepped out of a Cruze without driving it two weeks ago because, even though it had ample front legroom, the drivers door was too short for comfortable entry/exit.

    Have also turned down an individual new car on the dealer’s lot when shopping and picked another due to a hesitation when accelerating.

  • avatar

    The New York Times has a story that’s fascinating in its own right: the number of people leasing a car on without first test-driving the car has doubled since 2007.

    Doubled from what? Sadly the NYT article doesn’t give us the figures to make an informed judgement as to how relevant the “doubled” figure is. It’s sloppy particularly from the NYT, and potentially just a media beat up.

    I’d be interested to examine whether a press release from lead to this article, resulting in an easy column from the journalist and free advertising from the PR exercise.

  • avatar

    I called up a big ebay used car seller in chicago and told him I was coming to look at and drive an older CL 55 AMG. He balked, I didn’t go, or buy it. Is this normal? Was he hiding something?

  • avatar

    Bought my 04 F-150 new without a test drive. Figured ‘how bad could it be, right?’ Hadn’t even drove an F-150 of the previous 20 model years. Sat in the driver’s seat for an hour or two while we hammered out a deal. Seats are the biggest cause of regret as most cars and light trucks made today ride and drive great with more power than I need so you should sit in it for as long as you can.

    What caught my attention with the new body style were the barrage of TV ads by Nissan, Dodge, Chevy and Toyota showing how or in what ways theirs truck were better. That’s how I got introduced to it so it kinda backfired on them… Figured if they all were scrambling to discredit it while putting a white base F-150 regular cab next to their loaded up tu-tone 4X4 crew cabs, a test drive would be a waste of time. I was right!

    • 0 avatar

      ” Seats are the biggest cause of regret as most cars and light trucks made today ride and drive great with more power than I need so you should sit in it for as long as you can.”

      I know I’ve come to the right place. Great point, DenverMike.

  • avatar

    Most people wouldn’t know a well sorted suspension or a properly geared transmission if they met them. So why bother test driving. Buy the one that goes with your purse or fits you self image the best.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure, the average consumer might not be able to vocalize about or even name a “well-sorted suspension,” but they will be able to tell what does and does not work for them about a given car, and then they can make an informed decision and be more happy about their purchase in the end.

      If anyone, no matter how “informed” they claim to be, told me they were considering buying a vehicle without driving it, I would consider them – how shall I put this? – reckless with their money.

      Not to mention that the average “car enthusiast” doesn’t know how to spell Infiniti or the difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger.

      I can only hope that most of those people that leased cars without test driving them had driven them in in another setting (i.e. rental cars, an acquaintance’s car, etc.).

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      Most people take turns at .5 mph, and slow down 10 mph for a gentle curve, or brake for it. They don’t know diddly. I would hate to ride with most test drivers were I a sales person.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s exactly how my buddy’s mother drives. Yet when I took her car shopping, she still thought the ’06 Camry felt “unstable” and had a terrible interior. With me to slice through the BS and get her on the road in the right car within a few minutes of arriving at each dealer, she ended up enjoying the experience of test-driving about fifteen new vehicles before choosing the one she thought was perfect for her. She actually seemed excited each time we’d set out for another dealer. Since she was replacing a beloved ’92 Camry she had owned for almost fifteen years – which was donated to her son and still in use – she’d have probably bought another Camry if she had to just pick one from her home, and she’d have ended up with a car she didn’t like. Or maybe it wouldn’t matter because she wouldn’t even know about the 14 other cars that she would have preferred.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    It reminds me of Bea Arthur in History of the World Part 1.

    “Oh, a BULLSHIT artist!”

  • avatar

    I bought my 2005 Mustang GT without a test drive. I did drive a V6 model, but the GT’s were scarce then and none of the Ford dealers had one. I knew I was taking a risk, but at the time some dealers were getting $3k over sticker for them so I knew I could unload it if I wanted to.

  • avatar

    On one hand, this kind of disturbs me a little as it’s taking something that’s written down in text on a page or a screen and then try to decipher if it’s the right thing for you and it’s difficult as the reviewer may say, it’s a bit slow off the line it feels a bit soft etc and without you ever seeing how soft, it can vary from slightly soft to very soft and wafts so a test drive can give you clues as to HOW it feels.

    Also as another guy indicated, the seats, can you develop a comfortable position through the available adjustments? If not, that’s going to be an issue for you and you can’t tell that by reading an article.

    On the other hand, it CAN help you weed out the potential runners up for checking out further, making your research on what to look at more closely more efficient and then go test those that have made the short list.

    A good example, I’d grown very interested in the new Fiat 500 and even more so when I learned it would be coming to the US and after I read up everything I could about it, I still wanted to TEST DRIVE IT as I needed to know FOR SURE if the ride etc were going to work for me and often, a car will look much better than it does in the photos (or worse in some cases) but happily, after my initial test drive which included a romp up the 405 a couple of miles and then off through some rough-ish back roads to determine how the suspension in the Sport would do and was pleasantly surprised at how well damped the motions were when going over rough pavement and was rewarded with decent performance from the 101HP motor and how it felt on the highway, all of it was what I had hoped and still want one. A quick test drive back in Sept with Mom and the rep in the car (both manuals and sports), I was able to accelerate quite good in either 1st or 2nd with all three of us and the car responded in kind, further selling me on its merits.

    Still want one, just can’t afford one right now.

    So the test drive is beneficial and often crucial to ensuring you have made the right decision on your next car purchase and test drives are even more critical when buying a used car, especially if too old for CPO.

  • avatar

    In 1997 I ordered an SVT Contour sight unseen based on magazine reviews and drove it for the very first time after I had completed the purchase at the dealer. For limited edition cars, sometimes it is not possible to get access to such a car. Seven years and 100,000 miles later, I sold the Contour and bought an Evo. Trying to get a test drive in one of those (it was the just introduced in the US 2003 Evo VIII) was close to impossible. Dealers only get a tiny allocation and don’t want to let customers test drive them because the eventual buyers insist on mileage in the single digits.

    Besides, how much can one learn from a typical ten to fifteen minute test drive? It takes me weeks of regular usage before I get comfortable with an automobile, and no simple test drive will ever convey what can’t be ascertained by just simply sitting in the vehicle to see if it ergonomically works for me. If you are a car enthusiast, you sometimes have to rely on the words of the automotive press, Jack Baruthian warnings to the contrary. I’m now keenly interested in the new VW GLI based on Jack’s article here on TTAC a couple of months ago. By judicious reading, you learn whose opinions you trust and those that aren’t worth a second glance.

    • 0 avatar

      It takes a little while to get comfortable with using everything that a really powerful vehicle has to offer, but under normal aggressive driving conditions I can easily get a good feel for the ergonomics, suspension feel, steering feel, visibility, handling, and transmission operation within a fifteen minute drive. That’s enough for me to write off most vehicles.

  • avatar

    I was pretty ok with buying a Kia Soul. Then I read a review that noted it did not come with a spare tire. None of the dozen or so other reviews I’d read mentioned that.

    No thanks.

  • avatar

    As mentioned some low volume cars you just can’t drive without buying. But on a larger scale the general public seems to care little how a care actually drives. I had a customer once who asked my advice of picking a fullsize SUV to replace his aging tauraus as tow vehicle and grandkid hauler (he needed a 6500 lbs towing for his new boat) We talked and I mentioned a few vehicles he should test drive, he then said I don’t test drive, all modern cars drive the same to me I just sit to make sure I like the seat. He ended up with a Expedtion (not on my list) and must have liked it as I drove by his house the other day while meeting my parents for lunch and noted the expo was still parked there 8 years later.

  • avatar

    The only car that I bought sight unseen and un-test driven was a late 2000s XJR. However, a test drive would have been irrelevant. I knew that any XJ was not going to be the “best” at anything… and I was ok with that, because I am not obsessed with, and my happiness does not depend on, having the “best.”

  • avatar

    I can see skipping the test drive working well for people who rightly have so little faith in their own ability to process experience that they routinely farm their thinking out to others. I’ve read glowing reviews of cars before, only to test drive them and find that they were flaccid handling, shapeless seat burdened, dead stick steering barges with non-linear throttle response. Then I didn’t buy them. Glowing reviews of junk make sense when you know how the press and manufacturers interact. OTOH, I’ve hopped in a car spotted on a dealer’s lot that I hadn’t seriously considered and been impressed enough to do a bit more research on it and buy one.

  • avatar

    Jack, you owe me the time I spent listening to that horrid “song”.

  • avatar

    Not driving before buying is a huge mistake. What if the console digs into your leg, or the seats just don’t feel right? Even if the performance is on the mark, if the comfort is not there, you will not be happy in the long term. For us 99%’rs, a car is a big expense and one we have to live with for years to come. I also have to add that I disagree with Ed about the purchaser of that Camaro likely not being an enthusiast. If he bought a Camry or a Malibu I might have agreed with you and just assumed he was just another CR red dotter. Most Camaro buyer are enthusiasts and their cars fill the desire (for better or worse) they crave. Maybe he likes to grow mushrooms and the dark cave of the Camaro fills the bill…but no matter what, a test drive is key. In fact in college, the saying was that every drive with me was a test drive. I’m sure Jack B can relate to that!

  • avatar

    Professional review are crucial because there are so many things you can’t evaluate on a test drive, such as at the limit/emergency handling, objective performance data, and long haul comfort. That said I would never neglect to test drive a car. Armed with exhaustive reading of road tests, I only focus on a few criteria that are crucial and easily apprehended such as outward visibility, driving position, feel of the steering, pedals and shifter, engine note, throttle response, and smell. Yes, smell. Some cars (like the Genesis coupe) just smell bad to me.

  • avatar

    the number of people leasing a car on without first test-driving the car has doubled since 2007

    Some context for this would help: “This year, about 6.5% of new leases were so-called blind transactions, more than double the rate in 2007, according to”

    That’s not exactly an epidemic. If the numbers are to be believed, 93.5% of those who use the services of LeaseTrader are test driving what they get. Take 16 of those people at random, and 15 of them will have driven the car first.

    And in any case, a “blind transaction” means that the individual car that was leased wasn’t test driven by the customer. That does not necessarily mean that the individual who acquires the lease has no familiarity with that make or model of car.

    A lease is essentially a long-term rental. Consumers who use LeaseTrader are acquiring long-term rental cars (presumably at a discount) from the original lessee. They arguably have less to care about, since they aren’t going to own it and the car should be priced to move. Given the nature of LeaseTrader’s business, the habits of those who use it may not accurately reflect the total car buying population.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable with even leasing a used car without first inspecting and testing it, but some people are more trusting than others, I suppose.

    • 0 avatar

      The percentage probably gets VERY small if you exclude those who are leasing the same car they currently have. These people will feel no need to test drive the car because they’re already very familiar with it.

      My suspicion: created a story with minimal basis in reality in order to get an article mentioning their site into the NYT. Which should have given it more thought before publishing it.

      • 0 avatar

        The percentage probably gets VERY small if you exclude those who are leasing the same car they currently have. These people will feel no need to test drive the car because they’re already very familiar with it.

        Probably true. Plus, car dealers use test drives as a selling technique to capture customers, so I would expect virtually all new car buyers and lessees to have taken some sort of test drive, even if they didn’t particularly want to.

        My suspicion: created a story with minimal basis in reality in order to get an article mentioning their site into the NYT. Which should have given it more thought before publishing it.

        Yep. It smells like a glorified press release.

  • avatar

    I didn’t take a load of dirty laundry to Lowes when I bought my new washer…I just assumed it would work based on ratings and research – I was correct. There are types of cars that need no test drive, and then there are those that do.

    • 0 avatar

      There are clearly types of people who must test drive and those who can get away without it.

      People close to the 5’8 and 150 pounds or so of the 50th percentile male, probably aren’t taking much risk by buying a new car without a test drive. Those 6 inches smaller or taller, or 100 pounds heavier, would be insane to buy without test driving.

    • 0 avatar

      True but you can return/exchange a washer if you are unhappy with it. Try that with a new car.

  • avatar

    I’ve bought more than one car that I’ve been disappointed with even after a lengthy test drive. Unfortunately, a test drive just can’t tell you enough about a car.

    The seat comfort, for instance, can’t truly be judged in a test drive unless the seats are truly horrendous. The effectiveness of the HVAC can’t be judged since the weather is only what it is at the time of the test drive. Frankly, that’s one of the reasons I generally buy cars in the summer here in Texas – it’s the only weather that really makes a difference here. Of course, the heater could be terrible and I wouldn’t know it until December.

  • avatar

    This reminded me of two related events. Years ago, a good friend of mine had just gotten a significant postion upgrade at work and his income allowed him the option of some pretty nice cars. Ever since he saw his first XK-E he’d wanted one and now could make it so. Everything was looking good, bank loan pre-approved and such and then the bottom fell out; he went to a local Jag dealer in Dallas and found out his 6’6″ and 300+ lbs. just didn’t let him fit comfortably (actually, hardly at all) behind the wheel.He came back with a 429 Cobra Jet Mustang instead. My personal case was when I needed to replace my RX-4 Mazda and was looking closely at a Civic Si (loved the hatchback styling and, to be honest, Honda’s consistent ratings in Car and Driver’s Top Ten for years didn’t hurt) or a Sentra SE-R
    but a short drive in the Si convinced me that I’d either shoot the car between its headlights or that damn motorized mouse seatbelt would strangle me first, thus I became a proud owner of a ’92 SE-R and after 14 years of faithful and enjoyable driving replaced it with a ’06 SE-R Spec V that now has 90,000 glitch free miles on it.The older one wound up in the interior of Mexico and is still running on a daily basis and probably it will take being caught in a crossfire between the cartel and federal police to put it down.

  • avatar

    Since that description fits me to a tee, I beg to differ. I may fit BMW’s or Fiats perfectly, but I look like a twat (or a two year old) in certain other vehicles. But, if you want a real laugh, try a bunch of motorcycles, i.e. vehicles with no abilities to adapt. I fit Honda’s fine, but have never found a Yamaha I fit.

  • avatar

    Buying a car without a test drive seems very foolish to me. I insist on taking it on the highway, going down bumpy roads to check for for sqeaks and rattles. I also look it over for any repaired damage. I used to work for a Chrysler/Plymouth dealer back in the 80’s. New cars would come in all the time with transport damage. Not only that but cars would get damaged by windows being left down all night, careless opening of doors and other accidents.
    You need to treat it almost like a used car, check everything. Just because its new doesn’t mean it will not have problems or items not working properly. They Toyota dealer had to replace the a/c compressor on our ’03 4Runner prior to us buying it. My last Mustang had a vibration that turned out to be a bad tire. It is much easier to have things fixed before you buy because in some cases you will be told “they all do that” or “we couldn’t find a problem” after they have your money. With all the high tech electronics on todays cars it would seem more important than ever to check everything out.

  • avatar

    Am I the only one thinking this through? Did you ever imagine that these people test drive locally at a dealership around the corner and then go online to find a better price?

    The article talks about buying flat screens on amazon without ever seeing them. But a lot of people have, they go to their local Best Buy or other store and see the products, touch them, experience them, then use the internet to find the lowest price. They already know what they want because they’ve done the research through third party reviews and first hand knowledge.

    Thanks for taking a bad NYT article and regurgitating it for us.

  • avatar

    There is only one car I would buy sans test drive. An AM V8 Vantage Roadster. Because 99% of that car’s appeal isn’t about driving it.

  • avatar

    Well, if someone buys me a 02-09 Ranger Rover and a Merc W140, I’d gladly accept them without test driving.

  • avatar

    Last year I had to replace my blow-up B&W floor standing loud speakers. The only place to audition some new ones was 300 miles away.
    I asked around and found out, because internet shopping has taken over, most people are buying speakers and t.v.’s sight un-seen.
    And untested. Went with Klipsch, because I’ve had a set before.
    But I couldn’t help think, of how many people are just putting up with what ever they bought, because their was no chance of a test drive.
    And considering the price of new cars, it’s seems like a gamble at best.

  • avatar

    Not surprising given how we buy everything else online without a chance to look at it first.

  • avatar

    There are a lot of cars I would like to test drive just to see what all the fuss is with them. That said, there are a few I would buy without a test drive such as an Elise.

  • avatar

    Never buy or marry – wink, without taking a few laps around the block.

  • avatar

    I can’t help but feel this can be related to the fact that most BMW driver’s think they cars are FWD.

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