In Marketplace

Many dealers have new protocols in place for test drives.

Dealers, automakers strive to ease coronavirus stress for customers

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New car dealers are as concerned as anyone about the immediate and long-term effects of COVID-19 pandemic, but they want you to know that they place a high priority on the health, safety and peace of mind of their customers, as well as all shoppers.

Many dealers are addressing immediate concerns by focusing on sanitary conditions within their stores. Many also are picking up vehicles that need to be serviced from wherever you are during the day and returning them to you when the work is done to avoid interaction at the dealership.

Furthermore, automakers have already announced low- or no-interest financing and payment deferrals for buyers, plus programs to help insure that vehicle owners who lose income as businesses shut down can cross the fear of not making loan or lease payments off their worry list.

"A lot is already being done, and the number one reason is to help customers get through the pinch," says Eric Ewald, general manager of Ewald Venus Ford in Cudahy. "We're trying to provide the cleanest, safest environment we can, to do business in a way that makes customers feel most comfortable."

Says Kevin Burgher, general manager of Andrew Toyota in Glendale, "We've got huge bottles of hand sanitizer all over the store, and customers have definitely been taking advantage of it."

Dan Jansen of the International Autos Group says the stores he represents, like many others, started picking up and dropping off vehicles for service and bringing vehicles to customers for test drives to accommodate shoppers and customers who are concerned about social distancing.

"We're getting a lot more requests online, which we expect, because people are at home and following the advice of health care experts," he says.

Dealerships usually prefer to have sales reps go along on test drives to answer questions, but Jansen says, "We're letting people who come to the dealership take test drives without an employee in the vehicle if that'll make them feel more comfortable."

The executives said business has been a little slow, but vehicles have been moving off the lots over the past few weeks. Still, automakers have gotten proactive by introducing incentives such as zero-percent financing.

General Motors, for example, is offering seven-year, zero-percent loans while deferring the first payment for as long as 120 days. Hyundai and Genesis have brought back their job-loss protection program, which will make as many as six payments for buyers who face unemployment.

Ford is also offering to cover the first three installments, then defer payments for three months after that. Ewald says those first three payments can come in the form of a rebate check or be subtracted from a vehicle's price. Customers, he says, started taking advantage of the offer the day Ford announced it last week.

Rules of thumb for customers

US News has posted two detailed articles in the past week aimed at new-car shoppers and buyers. Here are some highlights:

  • You are "extremely unlikely" to be exposed to COVID-19 by touching a vehicle that was assembled in China – or anywhere else – since the outbreak began. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that vehicles are in transit for weeks or months – too long for coronaviruses to survive on non-living surfaces.

  • If you're worried about who might have touched a vehicle in a showroom or lot, ask the sales rep if the vehicle has been wiped down. Chances are it has. Or will.

  • While at the dealership, follow advice from medical authorities about person-to-person interactions, hand washing, social distancing and other methods of containing the disease. When you seal the deal, it's perfectly acceptable not to shake on it.

  • Do not hesitate to take advantage of attractive financing and other programs, but also resist the urge to panic-buy a motor vehicle. "The fear of the coronavirus," says US News writer John M. Vincent, "should not stop you from buying a car – as long as you're looking for a vehicle that meets your needs and you can afford."

  • If you already have a loan or lease and fear you might miss a payment, the worst thing you can do is nothing, Vincent says. Instead, contact the lender to see if you can set up deferred payments or discuss other options. "Nobody wants to see you default on your loan or face repossession," Vincent says. "It destroys customer relationships, it's expensive and it takes a lot of everyone's time. They all want to see you get back on your feet and make future payments."

Is there any good news?

The coronavirus news feed can be pretty grim, but the auto industry website justauto.com, which has posted daily worldwide updates for several weeks, reports that some automakers – including Nissan and Honda – have already or will soon resume production in the area of China where COVID-19 first caused major disruptions.

New-vehicle sales in China plummeted by 79% for February, but as the virus seems to have waned after first appearing in November, the government has allowed limited production to begin while implementing aggressive tax breaks for buyers.

Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler America have teamed up with the United Auto Workers union on a task force "to implement enhanced protection" for all manufacturing and warehouse employees and minimize interruptions.

While U.S. automotive manufacturing has virtually stopped in response to the pandemic, Ford and GM have retooled some plants to make ventilators.

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