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Try it, you'll like it: GM fares well with 24-hour test-drive program

THE FLINT JOURNAL FIRST EDITION
Monday, April 12, 2004
By Marlon Vaughn

Lisa Froehlich had no idea she could not only ogle the Chevrolet Malibus at Al Serra Auto Plaza, she could take one home for the night.
"I'm willing and ready to buy a new car," said Froelich, 29, waiting on her boyfriend's car to be repaired at Al Serra.
"I think it's great that they let you take them home to drive," she said. "I'd definitely take them up on that offer."
Froehlich hadn't heard of General Motors' 24-hour test drive program, which allows potential buyers to leave their car at the dealership and drive home in the GM model of their choice overnight. But consumers are responding in a big way, GM officials said.

"It gives people a first-hand opportunity to experience our products," said Susan Reyes, a spokeswoman for the Detroit-based automaker.

On April 1, GM started the fourth round of its 24-hour test drives, which let potential customers take a car home overnight so they can better see how much cargo it carries, how their children fit in the back seat, or how the neighbors react. In the year since the program began, about 650,000 people have taken part, and about one-third bought the cars they tested.

Denny Dunfield, general manager of Al Serra Auto Plaza in Grand Blanc, said about 70 to 80 customers a week want to take part in the test-drive program.
"It's been very popular," Dunfield said. "People have liked the idea of choosing the vehicle they want to drive. It's really good for everyone involved."

Auto executives are trying to shift buyers from thinking so much about costly incentives.
Recent data from Edmunds.com shows that incentives have failed to help any manufacturer gain market share, particularly not GM and Chrysler. In January, for example, Chrysler's incentives jumped 5 percent, but its market share remained unchanged. GM cut its incentives a little, but its market share slid a lot.

"Incentives are being taken for granted," said Jesse Toprak, director of pricing and marketing analysis at Edmunds.com, which allows consumers to get details on vehicles and prices. "It's no big deal anymore to see $3,000 or $4,000 cash rebates."
By contrast, niche marketing programs like 24-hour test drives appear to be changing people's impressions, particularly of brands such as Cadillac and Chevrolet that have slid off some consumers' car shopping lists.
The extended test drives also give GM an opportunity to show off technology that many customers might not know comes on its products, such as the OnStar navigation and information system, or XM satellite radio.
One benefit of offering OnStar on the vehicles is that GM can keep track of them when they are away for 24 hours. GM, however, has not had any problem with people returning the vehicles, said Bill Mistele Jr., general director of retail strategy at GM's dealer network.

The program requires test drivers to leave their own cars at the dealership and have a valid driver's license and proof of insurance.

Pete Wills, general sales manager at Applegate Chevrolet in Flint, said about 80 percent of people who come into the showroom requesting a 24-hour test drive end up buying the vehicle.
"Normally it's about 50 percent with people taking (normal) test drives," he said.
Wills said the new Chevy Malibus are popular among wannabe 24-hour test drivers.

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