Carmakers launch turbo test drives

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Those high-performance shots in TV spots of cars careening around corners-complete with warnings that they were performed by race drivers on a closed course-can now be experienced by potential purchasers.

Promotions from Mercedes-Benz USA, Volvo Cars of North America and Mazda North American Operations are reinventing the test drive in a way that could never be done on the open road. Their efforts push vehicle performance by offering prospects a chance to take a high-speed turn around a race track alone or with a pro driver in what analyst Doug Scott of consultant Allison-Fisher calls "reality TV on wheels."

Such test drive events are becoming an important marketing tool despite their cost-often $200 to $500 per person-because those who drive cars are more likely to buy them. At dealerships, 42% of consumers who take test drives buy within six months, according to CNW Marketing/Research, though conversion rates to sales weren't available for test drive events. Because of their high price, the cost of the events is often shared with other sponsors.

Mazda said its 15-city Rev It Up tour is "the world's largest performance-driving school and national driving competition." Via the tour, consumers learn driving techniques in a classroom-like setting, then attend actual drive clinics culminating in a timed and scored auto-cross course. The winners in each city will be flown to the final race at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Secac near Monterey, Calif., in August with that winner tooling away in a new Mazda6 sedan.

`zoom zoom'

Mazda charges consumers $39 to drive in the tour. Although the automaker sent a postcard invitation via its agency, Doner, Southfield, Mich., consumers can also register online at Those too timid to drive can test out Mazda models on simulated courses free or play "Zoom Zoom Experience" car-racing video games.

Mercedes-Benz's C-Spot Driving Party starts June 6 in Houston, the first of 16 stops aimed at changing 25-to-40-year-olds' perceptions of the brand, though the focus is on its entire C Class line. "We're leveraging as many partners as we can," said Chuck Johnsen,manager-consumer events. Inside C-Spot's 15,000-square-foot tent, attendees will see presentations from Saks Fifth Avenue, the Ritz-Carlton and streaming videos of Fashion Week, which the carmaker sponsors. The highlight is the "Dangerous Curves" slalom course, where passengers ride with pro drivers on two courses to demonstrate the model line's speed and traction on wet pavement.

Omnicom Group's Rapp Collins, New York, created a million mailings for the event that look like backstage passes. Mercedes is aiming for a total of some 40,000 attendees.

"Demand was incredible" for Volvo's R Drive Experience, a four-city tour featuring its 300-horsepower S60R sedan, said Jay Hamill, manager-product launches and consumer marketing at Volvo, enough that the company expanded attendance for the tour, which began April 5, to nearly 5,000. More than half the participants opted in online even before mailed invites went out after word of the R Drive Experience leaked on non-Volvo Internet sites. The aim, said Mr. Hamill, is to "signal we're no longer square, boxy and boring. We've now added performance and a lot of technology."

Attendees are passengers for three laps with pro drivers on created tracks, then can drive the course and are timed. The best time of the day wins a radio-controlled S60 R.

no substitute

Mr. Hamill said the event is not a substitute for traditional advertising, and print ads for the car, from Havas' Euro RSCG MVBMS, New York, break in June auto-buff titles, with the creative integrated into the event's direct mail invites and out-of-home executions.

Omnicom's AMCI consultancy is handling the tours for Mercedes, Volvo and Mazda.

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