Test driving, but never buying

Carl Benz’s wife Bertha is credited with the world’s first test drive. Without the “father of the automobile” knowing, she and their 2 sons drove to see her mother.

As drive.com.au reports, the journey was to prove to Carl the car could be commercially viable. And we can also thank Bertha for standard brake pads!

I’ve owned dozens of cars, but I’ve test driven dozens more. There are many reasons why I didn’t buy a particular car.

Nissan Micra

In the mid-90s, Hey Hey it’s Saturday was still playing and the show made a big deal of the new Nissan Micra. I think Pluckaduck might have driven one around the studio. I was in the market for a new car (BK, or “before kids”) so I went to the Moorooka Nissan dealer and asked to test drive the poverty pack 3-door.

The test drive began with the salesman driving and literally throwing the car through turns, to demonstrate its similarity to the Mini “wheel at each corner” philosophy. When it came time for me to take the wheel, I was a bit more reserved. However, I didn’t buy – the trade-in may have been the problem.

Mitsubishi Lancer with unpainted bumpers

Also in the 90s, the late 90s after I’d bought a SEAT Ibiza, I looked at trading it in on a just-released Mitsubishi Lancer 3-door. This model had vinyl seats, plastic door trims, unpainted bumpers and not much else. The salesman at the Mt Gravatt dealer directed me to drive up Mt Gravatt itself, which I did as he extolled the virtues of the “anti-submarining” seats and drop-away engine mounts in an accident – things I’m 99% sure the SEAT already had.

The car did drive reasonably well, but the trade-in on my SEAT was truly awful. This was the first time I’d heard a salesman say my car didn’t “book well”, which I’m now presuming was a reference to car value guide Redbook. So, the SEAT stayed with me and got a canvas sunroof.

Proton Waja

In 2008, as Beijing hosted the Olympics, I test drove a car I’d always wanted to experience, purely based on the chutzpah of the Proton chief who said it would sell well (at an inexplicably high price). The Proton’s problems were admittedly bigger than the model name – Waja – but it was fitted with leather seats and Lotus fettling, so I thought it was worth a look, especially at the rock bottom prices the circa 2000 models were fetching.

I turned up at the Moorooka dealer (the place with cars on dirt/road base that sold all the penny dreadfuls) and they got the Waja out for me. I’d only gone a few hundred metres up the road when I was stopped by a police roadside breath testing unit.

I was as sober as a judge (of cars) so I had no worries there. But just as I was about to drive off, an older copper stepped forward to issue me a ticket for driving with the windscreen view “obscured”: I’d allowed the car yard to leave the $5,990 price and features written on the glass. No amount of assurances that I could easily see enough to drive would persuade him. I called the yard and they sent a guy up to scrape off the paint texta. There was no offer from the yard to pay my fine. The test drive ended there.

Holden Barina Spark

In 2011, the opportunity/need to buy a new-ish car surfaced on a change of job, so I test drove a new Nissan Micra and a Holden Barina Spark – both around a $15,000 purchase, on-road. I also test drove a Chinese-made Chery J1, but the less said about that, the better.

The Micra drove well for a 3-cylinder light vehicle, however my wife said it was an “old lady’s car” – even in the gold colour I liked, with a roof spoiler – so that option went out the window. Then I went to the local Holden dealer to try out the new model I’d seen launched: the Barina Spark. At the time I didn’t realise it was the modern version of the Daewoo Matiz, sold by Holden under their dubious reselling of Korean cars. With its Italian styling and quirky engine I didn’t mind the Matiz – and with a motorcycle-inspired dash on the Spark, it also looked like a fun car to own (and you know I like micro-cars).

However a test drive soon showed up its shortcomings: in the engine and the driver’s seat. I didn’t expect the Spark to be a bright spark in performance, but it didn’t have much to work with at all, much like the Chery had seemed all-noise-and-no-action. The Micra had been a much better drive. Plus, my long legs were left hanging off the Spark’s seat, unsupported like sitting on a ledge. So that purchase didn’t happen and I bought a 5-year-old Citroen C4 which had huge amounts of leather trim and had seen huge depreciation.

A similar LeBaron

I often look for cars via price, rather than model. That’s how eBay informed me around 2017 that a Chrysler LeBaron convertible was for sale, unregistered, at a Nambour dealer, for around $1500. This car wasn’t just interesting because it was American – someone had spent a small fortune on it, converting it to right-hand-drive. The roof worked and it ran just fine.

One strange result of the drive-side conversion was that the passenger now had heaps of controls for their electric seat plus bonus buttons for the power windows, while the (non-factory side) “driver” had very few controls to play with. The dealer said they just wanted enough to cover what they’d paid at auction, hence the keen price. Due to it being so rare, I chickened out on buying it – even though an internet search showed it was worth 2 or 3 times as much. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

Daihatsu Sirion

There are 8 million stories in the naked city – these have been some of them. In used cars sold privately, you can add in test drives of an 80s Ford Meteor, Mazda 121, 90s Volkswagen Passat, Daihatsu Sirion, Mercedes A-class, Holden Astra convertible, Land Rover Freelander and even an early 90s Holden Commodore (long before they were collectible).. plus fresh checks on cars I’ve (previously or subsequently) owned, like the Suzuki Mighty Boy, FSM Niki, Daihatsu Copen, Ford Ka, Range Rover and Toyota Corolla Seca.

Bertha Benz took the first test drive – I don’t think I’ve had my last.


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