Test Anxiety

The stories seem large, like suburban myths:
* People taking cars for test drives and never coming back.
* Folks taking a test drive and totaling the car.

* Dealer and customer going for a spin -- and the customer carjacking the dealer.

Yet when car salespeople tell the tales, you know the stories are life-size and true. And like stories about winning touchdowns, big fish and the farmer's daughter, everybody seems to have one.

"Oh, yeah. You betcha," says John Bray, salesman at Lou Fusz Dodge, 1085 N. Kirkwood Rd., who has spent 13 years in the business. "Years ago, on South Kingshighway, a guy comes in and wants a test drive, and my buddy goes with him. They drive for 10 minutes, and the guy pulls a .45 and puts it to my buddy's head. The guy says, 'I don't want to hurt you, I just want the van.' My buddy's like, 'Take it!'

"Yes, test cars get stolen and wrecked. I remember vividly in '87, when a salesman was riding along with a customer and the car got sideways; they got T-boned and totaled the car."

Taking a test drive need not be high drama. But it might be the most important step you take in making a satisfactory automotive purchase. You should know, however, that the test-drive step is highly regarded by salespeople, too. It's the point that they figure to make their biggest sales impression.

Keep in mind that you have a heavy say in how a test drive is taken: how far you drive the car, for example, and whether the salesperson rides along. Herewith are tips to make the most of your test drive -- which, you'll find, is being called a "demo ride" in the latest carspeak.

"I've found that a lot of people like to drive the car by themselves," Bray says. "Especially if it's a husband and wife, fiancees, or boyfriend and girlfriend, because they relax a little more and talk to each other about the vehicle -- what they like and they don't like, as opposed to having a salesperson hovering in the backseat.

"It's good to ask the salesperson, 'Will you go with us?' or 'May we go by ourselves?' Every time you drive something unknown to you, you want to be as comfortable as possible."

Having the salesperson ride along can be a good idea, says Chris Blumeyer, salesman at Plaza Lexus, 11830 Olive Blvd. At some dealerships, that's the only way you're allowed to take a demo ride, unless you get special clearance.

"Customers are always going to have questions, and it's better for everybody if the salesman is along to answer them," Blumeyer says. "If people are by themselves, they think of questions, but they might forget them when they get back to the dealership. Maybe it's something as silly as, 'I couldn't find the cupholders.' Then if they forget to ask, they might assume the vehicle doesn't have any, and they leave without knowing."

To take a demo ride, you need a driver's license and insurance. Rules of the ride vary among dealerships. Some may hold you to a 20-minute drive along a prescribed route; others may insist that a salesperson accompany you. But, as Bray says, car sales are so competitive now that many dealerships are relaxing their rules.

Let's say you have a bad back. Maybe you won't know after just a 20-minute drive whether a certain car's seat is going to make your back uncomfortable. If you explain your case, many dealerships will arrange for you to keep a car for several hours, or overnight, to suit your needs.

Try to answer all your own peculiar questions on a demo drive. Take the car on the highway, even drive it to your house. Maybe there's a particular blind curve near home that you want to maneuver in the new vehicle. And if your family of six typically will ride in the car, bring the family on the test drive (although they might need clearance from the dealer).

Even further, if you have specific questions about how a car feels to you at night, then drive it at night. And no matter the weather, be sure to test both the heater and the air conditioner.

I once owned a red Honda that looked brown under the purplish vapor lights in some parking lots and subdivisions. If that sort of color change would bother you, look for it during your demo drive. And here's a tip you'll get nowhere else: I like a vehicle I can easily push. It has less to do with the weight of the car and more with the contour of the door frame. If you have similar concerns, turn off the engine on a demo drive and test how easily the car can be shoved and steered from the driver's side.

One last piece of advice for demo rides. Drive carefully.
"I've been at it for 30 years, and I've ridden along on three accidents," Blumeyer says. "For some reason, it always took the enthusiasm out of the sales. I didn't sell a car to any of the three. They were all men, by the way.