Tech Industry

Car site offers test drives during road show

Edmunds.com, one of the largest independent resources of information for car buyers, is offering a summer tour that will let people check out real vehicles and place online orders.

Online car shopping will meet the real world when an automotive Web site hosts a cross-country tour this summer, offering actual test-drives.

Edmunds.com's idea has some dealers bracing for a crash.

One of the Web's largest independent resources of information for car buyers, Edmunds.com will launch Edmunds Live with a three-day event in Atlanta from July 7 through 9. People who pay $15 and register online to attend the event will be able to test-drive one of 50 models from most major automakers. There will be 132 vehicles in all, so customers don't have to wait to test-drive popular models.

Road trip
The Edmunds Live tour will visit six cities this summer
Region Site Dates
Atlanta Atlanta Motor Speedway 7/7-7/9
Washington, D.C. FedEx Field 8/4-8/6
Chicago Chicago Motor Speedway 8/11-8/13
New York City Raceway Park (NJ) 8/31-9/3
San Francisco Golden Gate Fields 9/15-9/17
Los Angeles Hollywood Park 9/23-9/29
Drivers who are at least 18 years old can also talk with industry experts, drive sport-utility vehicles on log-strewn courses, and check out finance rates and insurance prices--without a single salesperson present.

The vehicles will be mainstream models, including trucks and minivans. No Ferraris or other exotics will be at drivers' disposal.

After Atlanta, Edmunds will take the tour to five other cities, hoping to attract roughly 60,000 attendees throughout the summer. If it's a success, the company will repeat and expand the giant show, which takes up the space of roughly 22 football fields.

The goal of the $15 million tour is to increase Edmunds' brand identity among online car shoppers. Though Edmunds is footing most of the bill, other sponsors include online auto broker CarsDirect.com, insurance broker eCoverage and 1SourceAutoWarranty.com.

Avi Steinlauf, Edmunds vice president of marketing, said consumers should use the tour as an opportunity to comparison shop without visiting multiple dealerships or haggling with salespeople.

For example, people looking for a midsize sedan can tool around the test track in a Toyota Camry, then try out the competing Honda Accord, Ford Taurus, Saturn L-series, Oldsmobile Alero and Nissan Maxima. They can then check out insurance and finance rates online, negotiate prices, and arrange for a final pickup point without leaving the Edmunds "Comparium" tent or setting foot in a conventional dealership.

Some customers may still want to buy from a traditional dealership after driving the cars and doing research at Edmunds Live.

"We're creating a ready buyer," Steinlauf said. "They can go to the dealership and say, 'I've made my decision'...It's all that much less effort that they'd have to have at the point of purchase."

Dealerships don't think quite so highly of Edmunds Live, which encourages people to research and buy vehicles online from brokers such as CarsDirect. They worry that giving customers an array of competing vehicles may make cars seem like mere commodities, in which drivers pick the lowest-priced vehicle instead of the one with the most brand cache.

Others are worried that consumers who research and buy cars online are missing an opportunity to build a relationship with a local dealership--the place where many people will eventually bring the car for maintenance or repairs.

One dealer doubts whether customers will warm to the idea of test-driving just any model--not necessarily the exact vehicle they'll buy.

"It's like the shirt that you buy at Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus," said Ramon Maciel, general sales manager at BMW of San Francisco. "Don't you want to try on the exact shirt, not just one that is similar? Would you rather buy clothes online vs. the experience of going to Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus?

"Most people would go to Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, even if the price is the same, because of the experience and the service. Same thing applies to cars," he said.