One in 10 car dealers is currently offering a test drive to customers during the third lockdown, a Car Dealer survey has found.
As confusion surrounds the rules, a poll of 200 Car Dealer readers found that 90 per cent have stopped offering test drives as they believe it is the ‘morally wrong’ thing to be doing.
However, 10 per cent of car dealers are still letting customers try before they buy, either from their dealership or at a customer’s home.
A separate survey – conducted for Car Dealer by What Car? of 1,000 consumers – found that of the 11 per cent of consumers who had bought a car during the third lockdown, 12.5 per cent of them were offered a test drive.
The survey also found there was confusion among the public as to whether test drives are currently allowed with 54 per cent saying they thought they were illegal, and 46 per cent saying they thought they were not.
What Car? editorial director Jim Holder said: ‘It’s become clear that the rules on test drives are completely unclear and that, as a result, car buyers and sellers are applying their own interpretations with differing levels of vigour.
‘That inconsistency is a concern – both from the immediate public health point of view at a time when almost all forms of everyday life have been put into a strong lockdown, and from the perspective of sellers and retailers who are having to interpret vague to non-existent rules as they fight for their financial futures.
‘At best it is unfair, at worst it is inappropriate.’
Car Dealer asked the government and Trading Standards for guidance on whether test drives were allowed under the rules earlier this week.
The Department for Transport simply restated rules that say car dealers should be closed while a spokesperson for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute said it was ‘ultimately up to the local authority’ to enforce the rules.
However, it could not clarify what those rules are.
Most large dealer groups – including Marshall Motor Group and Vertu Motors – have stopped offering test drives, however Car Dealer is aware of many that are.
Vertu boss Robert Forrester said he knew of ‘at least one UK group’ who had been fined as a result.
He said: ‘Poking a stick at the regulations is in my view less than wise.
‘The vast majority of retailers are doing the right thing and making good levels of sales. Our aim should be to support the government and work with them to fully open the sector as quickly as possible.’
Vertu issued an update this morning revealing its lockdown performance was ahead of expectations and raised its forecast for full year profit above the previously stated £18m. The group said ‘omni-channel’ retailing, which allows customers to buy online from home, had proven to be a benefit.
Classified website Cargurus has a search function that allows users to narrow down their hunt by dealers offering ‘contactless services’ which include a test drive at home.
There are currently 8,000 cars for sale out of the 225,000 listed on the site available for this service. Cargurus said dealers can chose to turn it on or off as part of their listings.
Motor trade legal experts Lawgistics told Car Dealer that they believe a test drive can be offered as long as the car has been paid for in advance, or a deposit taken.
Solicitor Nona Bowkis said there is ‘nothing that bans test drives’ and warned against ‘mistaking government guidance with law’.
She said: ‘The law says dealers can carry on business from premises separate to the closed business and by “making deliveries or otherwise providing services” in response to orders received online or by phone.
‘Therefore, if someone wants a test drive either from outside the dealer’s premises or at their home, that can be considered as part of dealers providing a service, particularly as a test drive is part and parcel of buying a car.’
However, CG Professionals solicitor Stacey Turner urged on the side of caution and advised against dealers offering test drives.
She told Car Dealer: ‘While I accept that the legislation is open to interpretation, my view is that the terminology “orders received” relates to a completed order, not any part of the sales process, like a test drive.’
What Car?’s Holder said he was concerned that consumers may see dealers offering test drives as ‘rule breakers’ that could tarnish the industry’s reputation.
He said: ‘What I would hate to see is this grey area subsequently being interpreted by the rule-makers as rule-breaking, and thereby tarring the automotive industry’s reputation in any way.
‘With the prospect of lockdown easing in the near future, it’s increasingly evident how critical it is to the health of the industry – and in turn, given its contribution in terms of employment and tax payments, the wider economy – that retailers can get back up to speed as quickly as possible.
‘They have previously demonstrated that they can do this in a full Covid-safe way and it is crucial that the trust they have built up is not undermined as a result of opaque law-making.’