Tryout Drive Tests Salesman's Mettle as Well as Car's Metal

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

You've spotted it--third car from the left, right out front. Sapphire-blue, your favorite color. All the right options and none of the wrong ones. The price is even within reach.

Care to take it out for a spin?

Hold on, not so fast!

Not anymore, anyway.

A generation ago, the car salesman might have simply tossed you the keys and watched you take off for a test drive with hardly a second thought. Now he not only routinely tags along, but he usually insists on taking the first turn behind the wheel.

Even as recently as 2 weeks ago, you could walk into most dealerships and put a brand-new car through its paces--as long as you appeared to be a serious customer--without so much as pulling out a driver license.

But these are cautious times, and salesmen are not as eager as they once were to jump into a car with just anybody. They would rather, shall we say, establish a relationship first.

After a couple of recent occurrences, Southern California salesmen have become even more skittish. Last month, a Los Angeles salesman was killed on a test drive. And last week, a prison escapee on a test drive with an Irvine salesman was arrested in Costa Mesa on suspicion of speeding away alone in a new Corvette--after a chase through three cities.

Isolated events, perhaps. Nonetheless, at least one county dealership has changed its policy as a result. At Newport Auto Center (Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Porsche, Audi and Chevrolet), salesmen photocopy a customer's driver license before leaving on a test drive, according to salesman Byron Brenkus.

Some county dealers were so nervous about test drives that they would not permit their salesmen to be interviewed.

Security is not the only potential problem with allowing customers to shop behind the wheel. Test drives can eat up a lot of time, and every salesman is well aware that time is money.

Still, test drives are too important a part of car selling to be abandoned, no matter what the risk, salesmen say.

"The test drive is the most important thing going," says Jerry Stagnato, a salesman at David J. Phillips Buick/Pontiac/Mazda in Laguna Hills.

"It's the best way to get the customer excited about the car," says Sam Muscato, sales manager for Goodwin Honda in Fullerton.

Besides, Muscato says, "you wouldn't buy a pair of shoes until you've tried them on."

Markus Ballin, a salesman at Newport Auto Center, says his previous employer, a Japanese import dealer in Santa Ana, considered test drives so important that any salesman who sold a car without the customer first taking a spin lost half his commission.

So car salesmen rely largely on their instincts in deciding whether to offer, or agree to, a test drive. Deciding which customers to trust--and which to get rid of politely--can be a delicate science.

Car salesmen know as well as anyone the dubious reputation their profession has in U.S. folk wisdom. But these days, they insist, it is the customer who is more likely to speak with a forked tongue.

"Salesmen don't lie anymore," says Stagnato of the Phillips dealership. "The biggest lies in this business come from the customer."

Such as?

"They say, 'I only have $2,000 to put down,' but then when they find the car they want, they come up with $3,000. If they're ready to leave the lot, they won't just say, 'I'm leaving.' They say, 'I have a dentist's appointment.' Or they say, 'You're here till 6? I'll be back before then.' And you never see them again."

High-end salesmen naturally tend to be the most cautious. At Newport Imports, for example, Ferrari shoppers must have an appointment first.

"We usually talk to people a little to find out where they live and work. Then we set an appointment, and beforehand we'll call the home or business to confirm," salesman Gary Hangen says. In so doing, he confirms not only the appointment but that the person is at least somewhat legitimate.

"If we have any hesitation, we ask for a driver's license," Hangen says.

"Looky-loos" are a particular problem with expensive sports cars, he says: "You get people in who just want to go for a ride. They'll say, 'I'm going to be inheriting money' or 'That's going to be a graduation gift.' You hear some pretty creative stories."

The by-appointment-only policy weeds out most of them, Hangen says.

Sometimes salesmen can judge a customer by appearances, but not always. "You may figure the guy who comes in off the beach is probably not serious," Hangen says. Ditto for customers with teen-agers or drivers with "out-of-state plates, or a rental car, or if they say, 'I live out here on the peninsula,' but they don't know the address."

Then there are the exceptions. "If they look all dirty and stuff, they may have spent the whole day out working on their boat," Hangen says. "It's hard to read people."

There were the two teen-age boys who drove up in a Mercedes-Benz with Texas license plates to look at an Aston-Martin convertible. "A week later, they brought their father in, and he bought it," Hangen says. "So you never know."

"You get a lot of dreamers in here," says Ballin of Newport Auto Center, "so you have to informally qualify every buyer."

"You get them to talk to you," says Brenkus, also of Newport Auto Center. "It's like Barbara Walters--she doesn't ask a lot of questions, but she gets people to tell her things."

"Through years of selling, you get a feeling about it," Ballin says. "It's kind of like a street sense."

Occasionally, if he has doubts, Ballin will ask a customer to fill out a credit application first, giving him a better idea about whether the buyer can afford the car in question.

And if the numbers do not add up, he will say--politely, of course--"You do realize that's a $100,000 car?"

At Goodwin Honda, Muscato says: "We're pretty liberal about test drives. This is a nice area, so we don't worry a great deal."

But his salesmen try to get a customer settled on a car before taking it out on the road. "When I see one of my salesmen go out with a two-door and then a four-door and then a sports car and so on, I know he's not doing his job," Muscato says.

"If someone comes in who says, 'Gee, I'd like to drive that Prelude,' I say, 'Have you been out shopping for Preludes? When do you think you'll be buying?' And if they say, 'Next year,' I say, 'What would you like me to do for you today?' "

When he is convinced that a customer is not serious, Muscato says, "I'll look at my watch and say, 'I have an appointment due here any minute. If you'd like to make an appointment. . .' That usually takes care of it."

Test drives are not mandatory at Goodwin, but they are strongly encouraged, he says. "When I sit down with a customer who's ready to buy, I ask, 'Have you driven the car?' If they say no, I get up and have the salesman come back in. Occasionally, they just won't do it, but I really want them to drive that car before they buy it."

When he says that car, he means it. "We always try to have them drive the car they're going to buy, not one just like it," Muscato says. "I've had people look at two identical cars and tell me one's faster."

Stagnato of the Phillips dealership sometimes takes an old-fashioned approach: "Most of our customers come from Leisure World, and they tend to decide very slowly. Very few of them buy that day. They want to go home and think about it."

In some cases, he urges the customer--usually a couple--to take the car home or to lunch while they mull everything over. "We ask for a copy of their driver's license if we do that," he says. "It works very well in this store. But you couldn't do it (at) a lot of places."

On the drive itself, the salesmen generally drive the car off the lot to their favorite test-drive area before turning the wheel over to the customer. "Every one of us has our own favorite course," says Brenkus of Newport Auto Center. "And it depends on the car. With a (Porsche) 928, you want a long, sweeping course, because that's where the car performs best. But with a (Porsche) 911, you can punch and accelerate from stoplight to stoplight and impress anybody."

Sometimes, especially if a customer seems intent on seeing just how fast the car can go, the salesman will insist on taking over.

"First I tell them to slow down," Brenkus says. "If they don't, I reach over and turn the key off. I want to sell the car, but I don't want them to stuff it into a tree with me in it."

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