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GM dealers offer Toyota test drives

Shoppers will be able to compare the Camry and Accord to the Saturn Aura and, shortly, to the new Chevrolet Malibu as well.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- If you want to test drive a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, starting next month you'll be able to do it at a Saturn dealership. General Motors is asking Saturn dealers to have one or more of the competing models in the showroom so customers can look at it, sit in it and drive it.

Of course, Saturn dealers can't sell you an Accord or Camry. But they hope that, when you see a Toyota or Honda sedan next to the Saturn Aura, you'll decide to buy the Aura.

"In that side-by-side comparison, we come out really well," said Mark LaNeve, head of North American sales and marketing for General Motors.

Later this year, Chevrolet dealers will be doing the same thing as they introduce customers to the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu, which shares its engineering platform with the Aura.

In focus group research, GM has shown potential customers new GM models next to competing vehicles with all brand identifications removed and, said LaNeve, customers have reacted well to the GM products. 10 great first cars

Another advantage for GM dealers in having competing products on site is that customers may not need to set foot in a competing dealership before making a purchase decision.

"I think we can stand up to the comparison," said Wade Hoyt, a Toyota spokesman.

Auto salespeople always research the competition, he said, and prepare advantageous comparisons to offer customers considering another product.

"They talk down the competition all the time," said Hoyt, "so this is just taking it one step further"

According to industry newspaper Automotive News, sales for the Saturn Aura, which was voted Car of the Year by automotive journalists in January, 2007, have been disappointing for GM. So far this year, about 18,000 Auras have been sold, according to Autodata, a company that tracks car sales.

Part of the reason GM is willing to take this step, said LaNeve, is because the company has little to lose. Midsized sedan shoppers often don't even consider GM products, he said, instead going straight to Honda and Toyota dealers.

The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are now the two best-selling cars in America.

"Over the course of a few years that became the default choice," said LaNeve.

GM has sold about 48,400 of the current version of the Malibu so far this year. Meanwhile, Toyota has sold about 145,000 Camrys.

GM wouldn't even consider doing something like this with its SUVs, said LaNeve. GM currently holds about a 70 percent market share in large SUVs, so there would be little to gain from bringing Toyota Sequoias into Chevrolet dealerships to compare to the Tahoe.

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