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Testing Times

Test drives can be an unsatisfying part of the decision making process but not anymore, according to Motor Trader editor Curtis Hutchinson.

Curtis Hutchinson

Curtis Hutchinson

For most car buyers the key to choosing a new motor is the test drive. That all-too-brief 20 minute window when the customer sets out with a chatty sales person at their side, fumbles around for unfamiliar controls and navigates a series of busy roads that lead back to the showroom. The experience inevitably tells the customer little about what the car’s actually like to live with and how it performs. Indeed they probably glean more from sitting inside the car on the dealer’s forecourt and peering into the boot to see if it will meet their day to day requirements, than taking the car for a spin.

For many company car drivers the scenario can be even more cursory with many user-choosers either happy to follow recommendations of car reviews they’ve Googled or what the fleet manager has suggested. More enterprising drivers will simply masquerade as a buyer and simply rock up at a dealer and ask for a test drive.

Talk to anyone in the motor trade and most will agree that the test drive is one of the most unsatisfying parts of the transaction. It doesn’t have to be that way and there are moves afoot to breathe new life into the experience.

Last year saw the launch of TestDrives2U; an online service which pretty much does as its name indicates. It has linked up with 150 main dealers across the UK to offer a test drive service to customers either from their homes or place of work.

The beauty of the service is that cars can be driven for at least an hour on familiar roads which will give a better indication of their day to day suitability. Potentially this offering could work well for company car drivers in SMEs where vehicles are often sourced from local dealers.

Carmakers are getting in on the act, too. Earlier this year we reported on how SEAT had launched a scheme purely for company car drivers offering test drives of up to four days from all its dealers. Initially the service was offered as a way to promote its new Ateca crossover but the response from user-choosers was so good it was rolled out across the SEAT range.

SsangYong and Mazda have launched schemes, initially in London, which could change the way other manufacturers address test drives. As both brands do not have dealers within the M25, where property values make running dealerships prohibitively expensive for some brands, they separately launched schemes aimed at taking cars to prospective customers’ homes or places of work for them to test drive.

The SsangYong programme saw the Korean brand offer 48 hour test drives for its new Tivoli crossover whereby cars were delivered to prospective customers by brand champions, rather than hard-nosed sales people, who explain the main features and then put customers in touch with their nearest dealer to conclude the deal.

For a small brand it proved to be a creative way to make some noise, get potential customers into its cars and punch above its weight. SsangYong has subsequently looked at ways of extending the service to other parts of the country, notably Scotland.

Mazda delivered a similar capital-based scheme back in 2015 which it now believes has national potential and could be applied to the company car sector where the brand is keen to increase its user-chooser penetration.

Without any dealer representation within the M25, it launched its Mazda MyWay pilot with 12 head office employed brand champions, recruited from outside of car retailing and not paid on commission, who delivered the cars to customers at home and work where they explained key features ahead of the test drive.

Mazda managing director Jeremy Thomson is so pleased with the success of the scheme that he’s planning to roll it out to other conurbations. The scheme is also being monitored by Mazda Motors Europe for possible introduction in major European cities.

“We’ve sold over 260 cars through the scheme and that has helped us calibrate what the opportunity is relative to the cost. The positive feedback from customers has been overwhelming as they can’t believe a manufacturer would work so hard to introduce a brand to them which perhaps they would not have considered.”

Thomson would like to see the service eventually rolled out to fleet customers.

“The test drive model is pretty traditional. What we would like to do is take Mazda MyWay to SMEs with fleets. We could set up in their car parks and let user-choosers test them,” he said.

Mazda’s expanded line-up, alternative appeal and nimble thinking could see this become a reality at a car park near you in the future.

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