Making the Most of Test-Drive Events

Tips on Timing, Testing and What To Expect

It's not every day that you can test-drive dozens of cars in one place, at one time, without any cost or sales pressure. But from now through the end of the year, drivers have just that opportunity almost every weekend. In an effort to get consumers behind the wheels of their vehicles, at least two automakers — Chrysler and GM — are hitting the road with free test-drive events that don't take place at dealerships and are blessedly free of sales pitches.

From now through the fall, GM's Main Street in Motion is bringing more than 100 cars, representing 70 models, to stadium parking lots from California to Florida. In addition to Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands (including the Camaro, Corvette and the plug-in hybrid Volt), drivers also can test GM cars against other manufacturers' vehicles, including models from Acura, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota. The events have several test-drive courses, auto-show-style car displays and driving video games to entertain the kids.

Chrysler, meanwhile, is taking its test-drive events to shopping centers around the country, inviting drivers to try the 2011 Chrysler brand lineup, including the 2011 Chrysler 200 sedan and convertible, the Chrysler 300 sedan and the Town & Country minivan. Chrysler says each driver will get a $15 shopping mall gift card at the end of the test-drive.

If you're shopping for a car, or even if you're just interested in checking out what's new in carmaker lineups, these events are a good opportunity to try out a variety of models and compare them against their competition — up to a point. Here are some tips on making the most of a test-drive event.

1. Find a test-drive event. This is the easy part. GM is aggressively marketing Main Street in Motion with e-mail and postal-mail invitations and online and print ads. You can also see the upcoming event schedule at the Main Street in Motion Web site. Chrysler says it will update its schedule of shopping-center events throughout the year via its Facebook page. You'll need to "Like" Chrysler in order to see the event listings.

As marketing budgets recover from the recession, other manufacturers are likely to hit the road to directly court consumers. Although Cadillac is a GM brand, it isn't part of GM's Main Street tour. Instead, beginning in early summer, it will resume three by-invitation test-drive events for its models and competitor vehicles, says Steven Haener, Cadillac's national sales promotion manager. The events are wrapped around three themes: golf, racing and cooking. You'll need an invitation to attend, although there are some walk-up opportunities for the Cadillac Culinary Challenges, which are held at high-end retail centers, Haener says.

Toyota has taken its hybrid vehicles on a Farm to Table Tour, offering Prius and other Toyota hybrid vehicles for test-drives at farmers' markets around the country. These are Toyota-only events, however, without competing brands for comparison.

There are several ways to find out about such smaller-scale test-drive events. As with Chrysler, you can "Like" a manufacturer on Facebook, follow it on Twitter or sign up for your favorite make or model's forum site (manufacturer sponsored or otherwise). The Edmunds Facebook page also highlights events.

2. Register, if you like. Main Street in Motion's Web site asks you to register for a day and time, and while it might save you some time when you arrive at the event, online registration is not required. Larry Peck, GM experiential marketing manager, says that 30-50 percent of the pre-registered drivers are no-shows. That leaves plenty of room for walk-ups. The Chrysler events don't require pre-registration. For both events, you just need to be 18 and present a valid driver license.

3. Go on a Friday if you can. Chrysler's events are only on Saturdays and Sundays, so a weekday visit isn't an option. Main Street in Motion is a Friday-Sunday affair. The crowds are definitely lighter on Fridays, which means shorter lines and more time behind the wheel.

4. Go early. In addition to shorter lines, an early visit is particularly important at the GM event if you want to drive the Volt. It's the only way to experience the car in all-electric mode. Event organizers don't have time to recharge the cars during the day (a full charge takes about four hours on a 240-volt charger), so later arrivals will only be able to drive the car when it's running on gasoline.

5. Understand the ground rules. These are not performance-driving events. The courses are short, and while there are opportunities to test handling, braking and a moderate amount of speed, don't go expecting that you'll be able to do burnouts. One event veteran, posting on Inside Line's long-term road test blog, put it this way: "If word got out you could do whatever you wanted in the cars, teens and 20-somethings would be flocking there to have fun. They are trying to impress people who might actually have jobs and the income necessary to buy a new car."

GM also requires you to drive its Cruze before you test-drive a Volt. You'll need to drive any GM product before you can get behind the wheel of the Camaro or Corvette. GM says this helps with crowd management at the events. (It probably also helps GM get more people into its non-performance cars.)

6. Don't expect apples-to-apples comparisons. GM is (of course) putting its best product foot forward at these events. While you'll find its vehicles at several different trim levels, that's not necessarily the case with the competitor cars. When Edmunds attended the event at Hollywood Park in the L.A. suburb of Inglewood, we found that the non-GM cars ran the gamut in trim levels, from bare-bones base models to higher trims loaded with options. We suggest you use the opportunity to compare the driving feel and interior dimensions, rather than focus on the trim-level variations.

7. Try out all the features and ask plenty of questions. This is your chance to find out everything you want to know about the cars. The sponsor's product specialists are knowledgeable about its cars and — most importantly — they are not salespeople. Ask them anything from the differences between models to a how-to on operating the stereo. The GM event even had child car seats that could be tested for fit.

8. Expect to do some online research. While there's plenty of onsite information about GM cars, Main Street in Motion offers nothing about the competitors' models. Edmunds writer Ron Montoya attended the event in Los Angeles with a friend who wanted pricing details on the 2011 Ford Explorer he had just driven, but there was nothing at hand. Luckily, Montoya had the Edmunds new-car shopping app (for iPhone and Android) on his smartphone and was able to find all the information on the spot. Of course, you can make notes at the show and check online when you get home.

9. Drive, drive, drive. Drive as many cars as you can. Drive cars other than the car you have in mind. Drive a big honking truck, just for the hell of it. If there's no line, hop in a vehicle and take it for a spin. Manufacturers want you to fall in love with their vehicles. Chrysler brand President and CEO Olivier Francois says that once test-drivers "put their hands on the wheel and their foot on the accelerator," their consideration for the Chrysler brand will increase.

For its part, GM is targeting its tour on parts of the country where American-branded cars are fighting for the attention of consumers whose default choice is a Japanese or European brand. (There are no events planned for the Detroit area, for example.) Peck says that if consumers try out GM's offerings, they'll find they stand up well against such competition. Buick consideration has picked up considerably since the start of the tour, he says.

It doesn't hurt to test that claim by driving the competition. Even if you think you only want to drive the Chevrolet Cruze, try the Honda Civic and the Hyundai Elantra — and even test a GMC Terrain. You might find that your perfect car wasn't on your original shopping list.