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Virtual tours should complement, not replace, test drives

by Frank Romeo

This post originally appeared on the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association website ( and the Toronto Star

In August, Nissan announced an innovative experiment that will allow customers to take a virtual tour of its 2013 Pathfinder crossover, online.

The automaker plans to use Microsoft’s Kinect for Windows (a webcam-style motion sensing device), which will permit viewers to see and experience the vehicle’s interior and other features in greater detail than was previously possible.

This idea of a virtual dealership has been hinted at for years. In fact, much of the car buying process has already shifted online, everything from researching products and dealerships, requesting sales quotes, booking service appointments, financing applications and approvals, etc.

In the next year or so, other automakers will probably follow suit with similar virtual tours on new models that will add value to the car buying process.

My biggest concern with the virtual tour, or any online technology, is that it could lull buyers into foregoing the all-important test drive. In my opinion, that’s a huge mistake. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without trying them on, so how could you consider not test driving a vehicle before purchasing?

Here is a situation that has happened many times to salespeople over the years. Two customers take an identical mid-size sedan for a test drive. The first driver loves the car, commenting on its sleek styling and design, spacious interior, and it handles well. The second driver finds the interior too cramped and uncomfortable, and doesn’t like the drive and feel of the vehicle.

Neither of these buyers could have ascertained his/her true feelings for that model with a virtual tour or any other online experience. Without that crucial test drive, one of these customers would have made a poor buying decision.

These opposing impressions of the same vehicles can best be explained by acknowledging that, as people, we are quite different. We have different tastes and opinions and come in all shapes and sizes. The only way you can know if this vehicle is right for you is by test driving the vehicle.

There is no denying that consumers have entered a new reality when it comes to buying cars. They are being influenced by a slew of sources, including automotive ratings and review sites, friends on social media, text ads, news headlines, and video.

No one source tells the complete story anymore, if it ever did. According to a recent report by Google, “the average shopper used 10.4 sources of information to make a decision in 2011, up from 5.3 sources in 2010.”

Perhaps this proliferation of information is creating a sense of paralysis and confusion among shoppers. At our dealership, customers often come loaded with facts and reviews about numerous models and complain about “information overload.”

That’s why salespeople represent such an essential part of the car buying experience and why test drives are so vital. Salespeople help to analyze the facts and reviews and explain the many incentives, options and features that are available.

It’s wonderful that more information is accessible for consumers today, and it’s great that consumers have embraced information from a myriad of sources to assist them in the buying process.

But cars still need to be seen, touched and (more importantly) driven. A test drive provides an emotional and tactile experience for the driver, without which no informed buying decision can be made. No technology is ever going to replace that.

Test drives allow customers the opportunity to operate a vehicle on roads and highways, and in various driving conditions. It’s seminal part of the car buying experence.

A virtual tour of a vehicle is an exciting and innovative selling feature, and it should be experienced, but I fully agree with Nissan in that it “should complement the buying process, not replace it.”

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