Even in digital age, many car buyers still want some drive time

Courtesy of Toyota
Press events generate road-test reviews that become a critical part of consumers’ online research.

Even in the digital age, you can’t really buy a car — or review one — without some old-fashioned seat time. So when Toyota brought its marketing machine to Minneapolis last week for a Midwest press preview of its redesigned 2014 Corolla, I was happy to attend — both as a marketing professional and as a lifelong car enthusiast.

The auto industry is famous for lavishly wining and dining journalists, flying them to exotic locales and putting them up at five-star hotels in hopes of eliciting favorable reviews.

By those standards, the gathering at the Commons hotel on the University of Minnesota campus was decidedly low-key, although the junket started on a brassier note with a preview dinner the night before at the Fine Line Music Cafe. (For the record, I didn’t attend the Fine Line event and accepted only a cup of coffee at the Commons.)

While auto companies have revamped many of their marketing techniques to meet the demands of the digital world, the press previews remain a crucial tool in getting the word out to prospective buyers, said Curt McAllister, Toyota’s Detroit-based Midwest PR manager. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the auto companies and the automotive journalists, many of whom have been covering the industry for years.

“Relationships are still at the heart of business, no matter what business you’re in,” McAllister said. “And the lion’s share of content in social media still originates in the traditional media.”

Press events generate road-test reviews that become a critical part of consumers’ online research. And about three-quarters of car buyers go online for research before they ever set foot in a dealership.

Like any marketer who deals with the media, McAllister is seeing the effects of the shrinking of the traditional media. Outlets are more thinly staffed and less likely to do their own auto reviews. Meanwhile, the Web has given birth to a genre of online journalist who will cover the news — for a price. Traditional media outlets get their money in an arm’s-length transaction when car companies buy advertising. Many online journalists expect to get paid directly for blog items, tweets and Facebook posts.

So, how was the 2014 Corolla? A great drive. Like many cars in the entry-level category, it’s gotten quite a bit larger over the years. The cabin is roomy, with excellent visibility and head room. The mid-range LE model I drove featured an attractive two-tone interior in black and tan.

The Corolla didn’t feel small jousting with semis on I-35 and the 1.8-liter engine had plenty of punch when I put the pedal down. The car was quiet at 65 mph, which was a pleasant surprise in a compact. Around town, it was nimble and responsive, with good braking performance. I recently drove a rented Nissan Sentra — a comparable vehicle — and the Corolla, in my view, is far superior in both ergonomics and driving dynamics.

Now, if only Rolls-Royce would invite me to Monte Carlo to test the new Phantom, I’d be set.

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