Best Practices

The Test Drive Conundrum – Has It Changed?

Test Drive Experience

Has the DEMO Drive changed?

On your very first day in car sales, a manager (or likely the put-upon salesperson) brought you out onto the lot and showed you how to give a proper vehicle presentation and demo drive. You were shown this once.

Over the years, customers have become far more researched on the vehicles they are interested in and many believe the basics of the product presentation have changed. Their knowledge allows us to be more concentrated on certain aspects of the vehicle than others. However, my question to you is, do you feel the demo drive has changed?

Most customers primarily show up to test drive first and ensure they are indeed interested in the vehicle that is best for them. Like trying on clothes, they want to check the fit, feel, finish, and comfort of the vehicle.

I know I’ve made some comedic videos about test drives gone wrong, but recognize that there are only a few different ways they can be conducted. What style works for some won’t work for others. There are four primary ways a test drive can be handled:

Test Drive #1:

You pull the vehicle up for the customer. The customer sits in the driver’s seat and you sit in the passenger seat, navigating them through the vicious 4-right turn track that you’ve created for yourself.

Conundrum #1: If you have given a proper presentation of the vehicle’s features before (or plan to after), how do you spend your time in the vehicle with them? Do you…

a) Just focus on their 5 senses (How does it feel? How is your field of vision? Are you comfortable? Do you smell that new car smell? Etc)
b) Do you focus on their need for the vehicle? What they are comparing it to and how they will be using it?
c) Do you re-highlight the features?
d) Do you build rapport with them and shoot the breeze?
e) Do you just shut up and let them experience it on their own?

Condundrum #2: If the customer has a spouse with them, do you…

a) Sit in the backseat and navigate from behind?
b) Sit in the front passenger seat so you can be a focal point for the second passenger?

Test Drive #2:

You pull the vehicle up, you drive the vehicle off the lot as your passenger and then perform the Chinese fire drill with a customer at an undisclosed place on the 4 right-turn track.

Conundrum #2: While this is a commonly taught practice, I ask, are you driving it off the lot…

a) For safety reasons?
b) So you can retain control of the experience?
c) Because with your expertise you can show them “what this thing can do” better than they might be willing to?
d) So they can experience the vehicle without having to focus on the traffic in front of them?
e) Because you are a control freak and you want all eyes on you?

Test Drive #3:

This form of test drive is rarely taught and often derided, but commonly executed. Many people feel the most effective form of test drive is to simply throw the customer the keys and let them take the vehicle out on their own. Do you find allowing the customer to test drive alone..

a) Allows them to experience the vehicle on their own without any pressure or anxiety?
b) Takes away your ability to build value or control the customer?
c) Is effective, especially for Internet managers, because it allows them to complete in-store tasks while the customer is away?
d) Makes you, the salesperson, appear more professional that you trust them to test drive it on their own?
e) Makes you, the salesperson, look lazy because you are unwilling to spend the time with the customer?

Those are the different styles of Test Drives and the Conundrums that follow each. This is an imperative step in the road to the sale and I’d love to hear what works for you. At one time or another, I’ve used all of these test drive forms, with differing degrees of success. At DealerKnows Consulting, we have a fairly specific process that works like a charm for Internet shoppers stopping in to test drive that we train our clients on, but we’d like to hear from you. (We hear ourselves talk enough).

We understand that every customer is different so I’m looking for people to take a stand on this rather than just respond with “You’ve gotta get a feel for ‘em” types of answers. We KNOW that 25% of so (random percentage) will only want to do things their way, but that leaves 75% (unproven percentage) willing to follow your instructions. How will you proceed?

How do you let your customers experience a Test Drive?

Marketing consultant & process leader, specializing in automotive. I'm also a writer, speaker, movie buff, and Dad. --President of DealerKnows--
Great post, Joe. As someone who hasn't sold cars before, I can only comment from a consumer perspective that I greatly prefer #3. On a test drive, I want to see if I can build a relationship with the car I might be spending thousands on later today and driving for the next 5 years, not the salesperson. My relationship with the salesperson, as nice and great as they might be, will likely only last a cumulative 5 hours through the lifetime of the vehicle at most.

I also want my wife sitting next to me in the passenger seat because it's important to me that she's comfortable in the car in the spot that she'd normally sit in.

Is there a legal/insurance reason why option 3 isn't done more often or is it just the sales reasons listed above? Every time I ask to do it that way, the salesperson looks at me like a deer in headlights and has to disappear for 15 minutes to ask permission from the GM.
  • J
    Joe Webb
  • May 3, 2011
Hello Alex,
Great question. I sold cars in the Chicagoland area, which tends to be the wild west of selling cars where anything goes. (At least at the stores I sold in :)
As far as I know, provided you have a copy of the driver's license and insurance card, you are legally able to let the customer drive.
Thanks, though, for letting us know which one you prefer. Maybe I should have also framed this blog as a means to ask the consumer experience.
  • T
  • May 4, 2011
This is a great post regarding test drives.

The issue regarding test drives that we have discovered in tracking over 5 million UPS is that it is not done. We know on average that the test drive only happens 56% of the time. So almost more important than how this 56% gets handled is what about the other 44%?

In my opinion the test drive is two fold.
1. to build value in the vehicle (which if done properly will build gross)
2. to build rapport and value in the sales person and dealership.

So my question is how much business is being missed when test drives are not done effectively or not done at all?
Interesting then that the entire gate for getting #3 is sales process. I guess my questions now are:
1. Is giving the customer what they want on a test drive more or less important to dealers than controlling the entire sales process?
2. Is there another time during the sales process that you can convey value in the vehicle, the salesperson, and the dealership?
  • J
    Joe We
  • May 4, 2011
You have a great question, too. I think, nowadays, we all believe that the best dealerships offer their customers an "experience". The test drive is one important part of that. I obviously tried to be divisive in the article just to see what works for some readers. We all know that it depends on the customer's wants/needs, but some in our industry still go about their duties the same way every time.

Also, handing over the keys to a customer, if done well, could still be controlling the process, just not the test drive. I think there are several times to build value in the salesperson and dealership, but only one time (test drive and product presentation time) to build value in the vehicle.
Depending on your particular state and how the law has advanced, you could limit the scope of recovery of damages if the customer decides that option #3 includes a test drive of 1000 miles to another state or a fender bender. The dealership's insurance policy may also preclude covering losses that occur on test drives that fall into option #3. And, by looking at the customer's insurance card, how can the employee know with certainty that the customer has sufficient insurance to cover an accident, or if his or her policy covers accidents in another vehicle altogether?

Around the NYC area, there is a serious problem with staged accidents. Option #3 would increase a dealership's vulnerability to this kind of fraud.

Joe, I wish your article would have expressed the benefits to the salesperson to accompany the customer on the ride. With proper training, sales people will see the test drive as value added and can easily overcome a customer's request for option #3. The internet has strengthened the argument in favor of sales people accompanying a test drive. Contrary to popular belief, just because a customer spends a few hours looking at a computer screen they do not become experts on a product. Take an internet customer and ask them to walk though the operation of SYNC or MYFORD/MYLINCOLN Touch on a Ford vehicle to see what I mean.

The reasons for not using option #3 as a dealership's preferred test drive policy far outweigh the possible benefits.
Interesting post. From a consumer perspective, I feel most comfortable with #3 because I don't negotiate as well with someone I have any real connection with (if I don't know you, I don't care as much if you make an extra $500). However, it's true... Test Drive #1 makes me feel cared about :). There's nothing as intimate as announcing, "Hold on, Joe, I gotta check out her 0 to 60," or "Put down your coffee, Joe, we're gonna find out about her 60 to 0," as I slam on the brakes. After one of my test drives (which I do in several models), I know, deep in my heart, you deserve that extra $500.
  • J
  • May 4, 2011
I think going on the test drive with a customer is one of the most important things you can do. I don't know how many times during a test drive a customer has made a comment about a like or dislike with a vehicle while driving down the road that will make or break the sale.

For example you are driving down the road and the customer makes a comment about the road noise in the vehicle. Now being a professional salesperson you know you are currently driving a a base model and they have less sound deadening, so when you get back you grab the next level up and take them out for another test drive, this time the noise is gone and you are back on the road to the sale.

Now if we had gone with option #3 the customer came back, handed us the keys and all we would know is that the customer has decided this is not the vehicle for them. So I guess my question on #3 would be, how many sales are lost on simple objections that would have been overcome with a salesperson along for the ride?

How did you go about tracking these 5 million UPS? Through data entered into a CRM system or though polling of customers?

The answer to that question could put the 56% figure on test drives into a better perspective.
Woah woah woah... not going on the test drive with a customer? YOU'RE FIRED!

I believe 90% of the time option 1 should be executed, in the back seat if there's a spouse (if there's kids you get to play with em ;-) ), and you should make the test drive about THE CAR and not about the salesperson/dealership. This is a great time to show off how much better your brakes work than their old ones, how much smoother your suspension is than their older one, and make sure they spend some real time in the car and not just go around the block. Selling Nissans I was all about the test drive! Many customer wouldn't be comfortable doing the things I told them to do on the test drive without me there (like passing cops and honking horns at strangers).

Now, I have the other 10% of the time let customers drive by themselves. You can get a sense of when someone would be better sold if they drove alone, and at times I've insisted they drive alone. Especially if it's a wife/husband.
Woah woah woah... not going on the test drive with a customer? YOU'RE FIRED!

I believe 90% of the time option 1 should be executed, in the back seat if there's a spouse (if there's kids you get to play with em ;-) ), and you should make the test drive about THE CAR and not about the salesperson/dealership. This is a great time to show off how much better your brakes work than their old ones, how much smoother your suspension is than their older one, and make sure they spend some real time in the car and not just go around the block. Selling Nissans I was all about the test drive! Many customer wouldn't be comfortable doing the things I told them to do on the test drive without me there (like passing cops and honking horns at strangers).

Now, I have the other 10% of the time let customers drive by themselves. You can get a sense of when someone would be better sold if they drove alone, and at times I've insisted they drive alone. Especially if it's a wife/husband.
Tracking UPS is what we do. Our system identifies the true number of UPS that come on a dealership lot which is typically much higher than the number input into most CRM's. Once you identify the true UP count and you know how many you sold, the formula is simple.

The over 5 million UPS, I referred to are from over 100 dealerships across the country including highline, imports and domestics.
So, is a test drive the same as a demonstration, or are they different?

I say they’re different.

When salespeople allow themselves to be sold on the belief that they are commodities, they add little or no value to the purchase process. This is what happens when a salesperson allows a customer to drive on their own without any targeted demonstration of the desired features and benefits in action.

Also, even when salespeople do accompany them, many customers leave a dealership without knowing what the vehicle they drove can TRULY do for them. This is largely because in many cases, a customer drives first on the test drive.

If you think about it, the word DEMONSTRATION implies that one party is showing another about something. In the automotive retail world, wouldn’t you agree this should be the salesperson showing the customer something about the vehicle they intend to purchase?

Unless you are MAGICAL at getting your customers to drive a vehicle the way you want them to, the BEST you can hope for is that they will drive the new car like they drive their old one. The worse case is they’ll drive the new car TIMIDLY because they’re not familiar with it. Either way, if they drive first, most customers won’t fully discover the value the vehicle holds before they leave your store.

The successful salesperson differentiates his or herself by providing a remarkable experience, a great part of which is a quality demonstration. The salesperson must first actively discover their customer’s needs and intended usage for the vehicle, then be willing to tailor their demonstration to how each person in their party will be using it.

A quality demonstration is actually more about the customer than it is about the vehicle, salesperson or dealership. Our job is to help our customers clearly picture improved life experience through ownership of our product and an ongoing relationship with us.

Would I allow customers to drive on their own if they ask?

Of course, but only AFTER I've shown them what the car can do and they've signed an assumption of liability.

So drive the car first with them as passengers and show how the vehicle will make their day to day lives better. Then help them try all the things you showed them. Since you know the car better, help your customers round out their intellectual knowledge of it with the visceral understanding a quality demonstration provides.

THAT’S when you’re adding value to the purchase process, when you’re no longer a commodity.
Shopper WANTS Test Drive#3, but sometimes a little product knowledge and a joint Test Drive#1 is what the shopper NEEDS.

In my case, We're a #3 store AND we sell used that are NOT cert'd pre-sale. Hmmm... I smell trouble. Great post Joe W!!!

New opportunity to explore! WEBB RADAR UP AND SCANNING!

As a marketing director that's paid by the number of cars we put over the curb, I have to ask myself, If you send the shopper off alone in an un-cert'd used
car, when they return, what skilled followup questions do we ask?

(grr... will my to-do list EVER get smaller??)
SideBar: Different Test Drive rules for the sales gals!

My wife sells cars and there are creepers out here. My wife had a creeper break her 4 right turns and refused to comply. He went off and took her to show her "his place". She cued up 911 on her cell, gave him one last warning and he turned around. NOT GOOD.


Your pic is on the net. Never ever leave on a Test drive until you CYA (Cover Your Ass). Always trust your instincts. Single adult males of any age are to be considered potential trouble. TELL EVERYONE YOUR LEAVING AND BE VOCAL. Get copies of the drivers lic. Get keys of other car to your manager, bring along a lot guy or send them alone, do what ou have to do to keep yourself out of a bad situation.


CYA! If they fall into bad hands, lawyers will descend on you like rain in Seattle. Write special test drive rules for your sales gals.

Charles Gallaer wrote of the costs and risks of 1,000 mile joy rides. I'd take that expense any day over a EMPLOYER ENFORCED test drive that ends in personal tragedy.

I would caution any dealer from taking your advice without consulting an attorney. What you are in effect creating is a gender biased policy at your dealership that could run afoul of state and federal laws. If not done properly, your business could be vulnerable to gender discrimination suits. You are less vulnerable if you tell these "creepers" to get off your lot than if you create an employee policy as you outlined.

I am sorry that your wife had such an awful experience. Thank you for sharing this story with the rest of us as we are now challenged to come up with a process that protects ALL of our employees (regardless of gender) while also protecting the dealership and other individuals who may be put in harms way by "throwing" the keys to the wrong person.

The author of this post began by asking which of three test drive options is a procedure at our stores. The OP on this thread asked are there legal reasons why a store wouldn't use test drive #3 as its preferred method. I answered this question directly.

had the credited response. Is there a place for unaccompanied test drives? Sure. Are there ways you can create an unaccompanied test drive process that reduces your exposure? Sure, as Mel pointed out.

I don't believe that our only choices to protect our employees are either to create a gender-biased process or to "throw" someone the keys and put countless more people in danger.
Charles - you make some great points about the legal/insurance/financial reasons and I also agree that some customers are either not tech savvy enough to understand certain features and/or certain features are sometimes too complex to immediately understand.
All good points, as are Charles' above. I was curious about how consumers aside from me felt about this so I sent this article over to the KBB Market Intelligence team, who posted it as a poll on between May 6 and today, May 9.

The results did lean in my favor, but I do understand a little bit better now after reading the responses to this article why it's done the way it's done.

Question: Would you be more likely to test drive a vehicle if you weren't required to ride with a salesperson?

67% Yes, I would prefer to test drive alone
29% No, I don't have any problem test driving with a salesperson
3% Yes, I would rather ride with any dealership staff other than a salesperson

(253 responses)You can see the pie chart posted along with results from some other polls here: