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Consumers : Car Shoppers Rent Pricey Autos for Test Drives

September 27, 1989|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

When LAPD Officer Tom Souza and his wife, Patty, agreed to buy a new car, they decided to rent some of the autos they were considering and test drive them for a weekend.

With their own demonstration drives, the Souzas joined a growing number of savvy consumers who, faced with spending big bucks for a car, want more than the traditional 10-minute drive with the sales representative.

So far, the Souzas have rented three cars--a Toyota Camry, a BMW and a Lincoln Town Car--and plan to test a few more before they make their $30,000-decision. "Cars are expensive," said Tom Souza. "We don't want to just go around the block in them. If we did that, we could buy a car we hated and be stuck with it."

By renting a car they're interested in, Souza said that he and his wife could really get to know the car and be certain it is the one they want to buy.

"There has definitely been a nationwide increase in consumers test-driving rental cars," said Jeffrey Quist, editor of Auto Rental News, the car rental industry trade journal. "This is particularly true for luxury vehicles retailing for over $20,000."

Car rental representatives and auto dealers indicate the number of prospective car buyers renting cars for longer test drives is increasing particularly in car-conscious Southern California. Of the 40 to 50 cars rented daily at Budget Rent-A-Car's Beverly Hills office, nearly a quarter are rented by customers who want to test drive them. The hottest test cars are Mercedes, Mustang, BMW and Corvette convertibles.

"The number of customers using our cars for test drives is steadily increasing," said Jeff Mirkin, president of Budget Rent-A-Car of Southern California. "Some might say right out that that's what they're doing. Others ask for a specific car. There's an increase in that kind of rental. Most people usually ask for a particular class (such as a subcompact or large sedan), not a specific model."

"We've seen a rising trend in that," observed Michael J. Olsen, vice president of National Car Rental's corporate communications in Minneapolis. "And that's a good sign for the American car business. I think the quality of American cars is going up and up. One of our major partners is General Motors, and they have so many models the consumer can drive forever. People are taking a spin in the cars and saying, 'Hey, this is a good car.' Consumers are smarter than we often give them credit for."

Consumers can find just about anything they want to test drive--high or low budget models--at rental agencies.

Exotic Cars Available

For example, in addition to the more traditional autos, several Budget offices offer renters more exotic cars, among them Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and the Ferrari Testarossa. Considering the new Testarossa has a waiting list in Los Angeles of 5 years and a sticker price of $145,000, prospective buyers might want to get a ride in long before they ever own one.

But Ferrari dealers don't offer test drives for their high-ticket cars.

"We never give test drives on a Testarossa," said Greg Paschen of Hollywood Sport Cars Inc. on Hollywood Boulevard. "Occasionally people will go out and rent one, or rent a 328 GTS to see if it's comfortable and they like it--a $1,000 rental is not much when you consider the car costs $85,000."

Avis, said Sarah Bates, director of marketing, has all the latest model cars that are identical to the ones in the dealership.

"It's a pretty good, pretty inexpensive way to get field condition experience," said Bates. "You can get a two-door subcompact Toyota Tercel, for instance, for $19 to $21 a day; a Cadillac for $42."

Test driving a rental also makes good economic sense for consumers facing such a big ticket purchase, insisted Budget's Mirkin.

"Outside of your home, I can't think of any other high-priced item but a car that you'd be spending a lot on. The average car in our fleet is $12,000. That' a big investment for people."

Bates suggested test drivers are renting cars to see how the car will fit in with their life style.

"It's nice to see how the kids and the dog and the playpen fit in," she explained. "Or if you can get your golf clubs in the trunk, something you can't do at the dealership. My husband and I bought a new car eight months ago and everywhere we went, the salesperson was with us. It would have been kind of nice to talk with each other about the car without the salesman."

Consumers also might like the look of a particular new car, but once they drive it find

Searching for a Good Seat

One customer with a lower back problem sold his BMW because he couldn't fix the seat in a comfortable position. He tested out several rental cars before he found a Cadillac with a seat adjustment system that supported his back perfectly.

Sometimes car manufacturers produce a car with a certain feature or item that generates many complaints from consumers who noticed the problem after they purchased it.

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