Are test drives a thing of the past?

As more cars are sold online (or over Twitter), there may be a significant drop in the number of consumers who want to test drive cars before a purchase.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters/File
A row of cars are seen at a dealership in Seoul, South Korea.

Earlier this year, a Nissan dealership in Spain sold a car via Twitter. There was no face-to-face interaction with the shopper--not even a test drive. The buyer didn't actually sit in his new ride until after he'd paid for it.  

At least one observer thinks that such hands-off transactions are the way of the future

To be fair, that observer runs a company that produces video for dealerships--video that, according to him, will soon play a greater role in shoppers' purchasing decisions than visits to showrooms. In other words, CEO Alistair Horsburgh has a keen interest in making sure that dealers understand/believe in the growing importance of video.

That's not to say that he's entirely mistaken, though. The internet has become the first stop for many consumers, whether they're looking for sporks or sports cars. But today, shoppers demand more from their web browsing than a pic of an item and a brief rundown of specs. They want deep dives: they want to see products from multiple angles, and in the case of expensive items like cars and trucks, they want thorough walkthroughs.

Video makes that possible. It enriches the web browsing experience, and dealerships who use Horsburgh's CitNOW video service say that it has improved engagement and helped sell both new and used cars faster. 

But here's the big question: even though we can use the internet to shop for cars, compare stats between vehicles, watch video overviews, secure financing, and, if necessary, sign on the dotted line, are we willing to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a car we haven't driven?

Horsburgh says yes. Within five years, he envisions every part of the auto sales transaction taking place online, down to the haggling. In his view, the only time that consumers will meet dealers in the flesh is when they come to pick up their rides. (And some services available now don't even require buyers to do that much.)

Frankly, we can't envision buying a car without taking it for a spin or two--or at least buying from a place that allows you to return the vehicle after purchasing it if you're not satisfied.

However, we know there are others who don't care much about test drives. At last count, roughly 11 percent of consumers fell into that camp, and by now, the figure could've crept far higher.

This article first appeared at The Car Connection.

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