A new technology company is launching a service for carmakers to capture online new car shoppers and offer prospects weekend test drives.

AutoMatic, founded about a year ago by longtime industry marketing veterans, has an exclusive deal with Enterprise Rent-A-Car to deliver and pick up the vehicles, although automakers can opt to let their dealers handle that service.

Enterprise’s research of 10 million rental records found that its customers were 16 times more likely to buy the same vehicle they had rented earlier, said Patrick Sarkissian, partner and co-founder of AutoMatic.

Once a shopper on an independent auto site configures a rival’s vehicle, AutoMatic’s software sends an invitation for the test drive. “If you are a challenger brand, you need to be disruptive and be different,” said Sarkissian, adding the program is best for challenger brands.

“People don’t know how good some cars are until they get in them,” said Sarkissian, also president of digital ad agency SarkissianMason in New York City, which handles Mazda and Chrysler Financial. “The whole principal of this program is to get people to fall in love with your car with no hassle and no pressure.” He said the effort is aimed at improving the industry average of just 1.4 test drives by buyers before purchase.

Car shoppers limit test drives at dealerships because it’s so painful, Sarkissian added, with 40% of shoppers saying they left a dealership without buying due to poor treatment.

The program could be used for a single model or entire line; in one city or multiple markets, he said.

AutoMatic will soon announce its first OEM client, which Sarkissian declined to identify. The company will license its software, which has a patent pending, to automakers, which in turn would also pay Enterprise if they don’t use their own dealer body for deliveries and pickups.

Bob Cosmai, former president of Hyundai Motor America and now an independent consultant, said test drives at dealerships can sometimes be like “having your teeth pulled without Novocaine” and he likes AutoMatic’s idea of no-pressure drives.

Cosmai said he would expect the program to work best for a new-model launch, not an entire lineup or product near the end of its life cycle. “If I were to use it, I would test it in certain markets. I don’t know if I’d run it out nationally.” He called it a “different approach” that “goes back to selling the car and not the deal.”

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Jean Halliday is a seasoned journalist with the nation's longest consecutive run covering auto advertising. Her years in the trenches include stints at Automotive News, Adweek and Advertising Age. The native New Yorker now lives outside the Motor City. You can read Jean's blog at AutoAdOpolis.wordpress.com.

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