News Column

Will We Be Paying for Test Drives?

February 26, 2013

John Cichowski, Road Warrior

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From time to time, readers recount awful experiences they've encountered at auto dealerships -- often involving money. But the recent, miserly news out of California ranks among the most penny- wise/pound-foolish examples.

Some dealers there are now requiring customers to pay for the gas consumed in test drives. According to published reports, they're demanding that prospective buyers return cars with the same amount of gas that was in the tank on departure. The stated reason, of course, is the Golden State's ever-rising fuel prices, which are substantially higher than the ever-rising prices in the Garden State.

Could this customer-unfriendly practice reach the East Coast?

Just asking such a question drew a frosty response from the head of NJ CAR, the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers.

"I'm not commenting on anything that happens in California," said Jim Appleton, president of NJ CAR, "but it doesn't sound like smart marketing."

No, it doesn't.

"Ludicrous!" complained Fort Lee reader Susan Vena.

Susan did some fast calculating for a car that gets 30 miles per gallon: At an inflated $5 per gallon, she came up with $1.67 for a 10-mile test ride.

"What nickel-and-diming," she said. "Gas for test drives should be part of the cost of doing business.

"Do they want to charge for wear and tear on the tires, too?"

Reaching into our pockets for annoying fees seems to be a common revenue producer. Who hasn't fretted about $1 E-ZPass billing charges or $2 for the privilege of putting a car registration fee on a credit card? But this tactic would appear only to work for uncompetitive services such as E-ZPass or the Motor Vehicle Commission.

We're their captive audience.

But automobile sales is a highly competitive business -- and a vulnerable one, too. Might the real reason for tightening test- drive policies have less to do with rising gasoline prices and more to do with the fragile business of sending strangers out on the road with expensive merchandise?

Consider the bizarre transaction that occurred in California shortly before dealers began demanding gas money. A woman in San Joaquin County negotiated with an 83-year-old man to sell her his old Chrysler for $2,200. He refused to let her test-drive the car alone, but when she asked him to drive her to a bank where she could withdraw cash for the sale, he agreed.

The buyer went into the bank while the seller waited outside in the car. When she returned with the money, they drove away.

He didn't realize his Chrysler had been turned into a getaway car. The woman had robbed the bank -- a fact that didn't become clear until police pulled them over with guns drawn.

"They could have shot me," the man told reporters later.

That aborted sale was private, but even professional sales can go wrong. Despite their own insurance policies and other safeguards, such as screening a customer's digital driver's license and insurance card, car dealers sometimes get tripped up by unscrupulous people, too.

"We know of carjackings that happen even when salesmen go with customers," Appleton said.

The scams are endless. A customer might drive to a pre-arranged place where an accomplice hijacks the car, he noted. Bogus buyers might lure a salesman out of a car to check a phantom noise, then leave him standing in an exhaust cloud, said Sgt. Robert Held, the traffic safety officer in Westwood.

"Customers have been known to use a test drive just to steal valuable dealer plates," said Held, who once sold used cars.

If a customer can drive away alone, he might make an impression of a key or replace it with a similar-looking key, he added. "Then he can return to steal the car."

Shouldn't salespeople always accompany a test drive? Not always, Appleton said.

"Generally, dealers will only let long-term customers drive cars alone," he explained, "often to drive it home for a wife [or husband] to see." But small dealerships -- especially used-car lots - - often employ small staffs, Held said, "so they might let people drive away while they stay behind."

"They have to screen their customers carefully by asking the right questions," he added.


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