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Car Salesman Confidential: When Test Drives Go Bad

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2/24/2015 Mark McDonald
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Most test drives begin and end peacefully. But when they go wrong, boy, they can really go wrong.

Last year, Jeff Gordon did a commercial for a soft drink showing him scaring the living daylights out of a car salesman on a test drive. The commercial was well done and funny, but I didn’t believe it was “real,” or unstaged, for one minute. Why? Because no salesman would allow a customer to drive like that -- unless it was his first day on the job and he didn’t know any better. That’s one reason I always sit in the front seat on test drives. First of all, questions invariably arise during every test drive -- like “How do I adjust the mirror?”-- that are virtually impossible to answer from the back seat. Second, I want the customer to know I’m in control. If I need to, I’ll have the customer pull over and I’ll drive us back to the dealership.

For instance, there was one guy who claimed to be a dirt track driver in his youth. We went on a test drive in a used Ford Mustang GT500, and the first time he gave it a little too much gas the back end broke loose and he turned it sideways. I knew right then that A) he wasn’t a professional driver, and B) I was in for a fun ride. I just didn’t know how fun. After awhile, he seemed to get his confidence back and the next thing I know he’s looking at me with a big grin on his face, saying “Watch this.”

There are a couple of phrases you never want to hear on a test drive. The first is “Don’t worry, I’m a professional.” The second is “Watch this.” If you’re a salesperson and you hear either, it’s time to stop the car, immediately pull over and explain the rules to the customer, the number one rule being that the salesperson goes home alive.

Well, in this case, I didn’t get a chance to do that. Before I could say “Oh shoot!” this guy stomps the gas, spins the wheel, and drifts us through a right angle turn on a small street in a residential area. After we got through the turn I laughed like it was no big deal, then asked the driver to pull into the parking lot of an office building up ahead, I had something I wanted to show him. As soon as the car came to a stop, I yanked the keys out of the ignition and told him his test drive was over. He could either get in the passenger seat and let me drive him to the dealership, or I’d leave him on the side of the road and he could walk back. His choice. The customer was angry as hell, but I had the keys so he didn’t have much choice. I’ve known other salesmen who have actually made customers walk back.

Most of the time the customers aren’t showing off, or deliberately trying to kill you. They just don’t know any better. Like the lady who was unfamiliar with traffic circles.

Most of the area around my dealership is industrial, with roads laid out in straight lines in a grid prattern. But a few years ago, someone got the bright idea to build a “roundabout,” or traffic circle, at one of the major intersections to help flow. If you’ve never seen a roundabout it’s pretty simple. It’s a big circle with all the traffic inside the circle going counterclockwise. Roads intersect the circle at four points: north, south, east, and west. If you’re on one of the intersecting roads, you slow down as you approach the circle, check to see if any traffic is coming, then enter the circle, driving around it until you come to the street you want, then exit. The traffic inside the circle always has the right of way. It’s hard to describe in words, but fairly easy to figure out how it works if you ever come upon one.

It was anything but easy for this lady. As we approached the traffic circle at about 45 miles per hour I told her “Okay, we’re approaching a traffic circle. Just slow down up ahead and yield to the traffic that’s already in the circle.” She kept talking, telling me some silly story, not even paying attention to what I was saying. I started getting a little nervous because we were coming up on the circle pretty fast and she wasn’t slowing down.

So I warned her again: “Okay, now, we’re coming up on the circle. You don’t have to come to a complete stop, just slow down and yield to the traffic that’s already in the circle.”

She kept jabbering, not even hearing me. I looked ahead and saw there was a lot of traffic in the circle. It was rush hour and the roads were packed. I raised my voice. “Okay, now, slow down and be prepared to yield.”

I looked to our left and saw a big, copper-colored F-250 dualie enter the circle and turn towards us. We were on a collision course.

“SLOW DOWN!!!”

Whoosh. She entered the circle at full speed, cutting straight across as if it wasn’t even a circle, as if it was just a regular road, and exited on the other side. We barely missed the truck.

Then she turned to me and asked: “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

That’s how most of them are. They have no idea why you’ve just soiled your britches. Usually they just laugh and go “Hey, hey, you must be the nervous type!” Yep, strangely enough, I always get nervous when my life is in danger.

If any of you have tales of harrowing test drives you’ve experienced, please share them with the rest of us. I’m sure the readers of Motor Trend would love to hear them!

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