One of the most significant steps in the process of buying a new car is the test drive. Research can only take you so far, there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself from the driver’s seat.
The process of visiting a dealer and taking a test drive varies widely, there are no set rules and dealers play it as they see fit which is fair enough to a point. Some dealers are happy to go above and beyond while some still regard a quick spin around the block as good enough.
Last week, research firm JD Power released an insightful study called the 2018 Australia Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI). According to JD Power, the study provides a comprehensive analysis of the new-vehicle purchase experience and measures customer satisfaction with the selling dealer. The data was based on the responses of 3075 new car buyers.
For context, buyer satisfaction is based on six measures: dealer sales consultant; delivery process; dealership facility; working out the deal; paperwork completion; and dealership website.
According to the results, the needs of 20 per cent of new car buyers are not being met. It’s not an insignificant number when you consider the market’s size.
The most notable concern to come out of the study refers to the test drive. 19 per cent of buyers undertake a test drive of 10 minutes or less. How any person can determine if a car is worthy of purchase after such a short drive is beyond me. But it gets better, 50 per cent of buyers spend 20 minutes or less in the car which is still woefully short.
It’s not surprising to read that the 12 per cent of customers who test drove a car for 31 minutes or longer were more satisfied with the experience.
Trying to properly determine if a vehicle fits your lifestyle and if it’s worth the price takes longer than 10 minutes. Some brands do offer more, Holden, for instance, allows buyers to take a 24-hour test drive, however, most test drive policies are at the dealer’s discretion.
Our advice has always been to suss out the dealer’s test drive policy before arranging the drive to ensure the provisions are acceptable. Take the time to find a dealer who will allow the time to assess the car properly. There are plenty of dealers out there who are happy to hand over the keys for longer tests.
There will always be the odd exception to any rule. With some models, properly assessing if it’s fit for purpose isn't always possible. Take the new Ranger Raptor, Ford is happy to shout about its off-road prowess, yet it would be near on impossible to find a dealer willing to allow an off-road assessment.
Dealership sales staff haven't really covered themselves in glory, the study found that shoppers 39 years old or younger and first-time new car buyers experienced higher levels of pressure from the dealer to purchase a new vehicle (35% and 24%, respectively).
New initiatives such as pop-up stores and boutiques are measures being taken to overcome some of the issues buyers are faced with during the purchase process. These outlets are often more about letting potential buyers experience the product in a pressure-free environment. 
Interestingly, only 56 per cent of customers recall any special ceremony taking place during handover. It turns out a new car is a major purchase for many and worthy of a celebration. Those who did enjoy something of a celebration at handover are far more likely to recommend the selling dealership to friends and family. Shocking, we know.
“Given the slowdown in sales, it is essential that sales consultants spend the required time with each shopper to identify the best model and variant for their requirements,” said Bruce Chellingworth, Director & Country Manager – Australia at J.D. Power.
“Simply ‘pushing metal’ won’t help the dealership gain positive referral, ensure customer loyalty or promote the brand. In an increasingly competitive market, it is imperative that dealers understand and build trust with their customers.”
There is something in the study for manufacturers, dealers and buyers to consider. From the buyers’ perspective, it’s worth spending the time to find a dealer that offers more flexibility to assess any potential purchase properly.