Are you willing to buy a new car online? Because some do

The phrase "bought it sight unseen" is a really old one. It doesn't just predate the internet, it predates photography and internal combustion. It certainly predates the Eagles' 1974 song about James Dean (which is actually a play on words about his death in a car crash).

The reason a person would buy any used item sight unseen (or at least not seen in person) is because they're so confident it fits their intended purposes (whether that be practicality, investment value, or in some cases both), that they're more willing to trust the seller's description than they are to run the risk of someone else buying it first.

I'll admit I've done this myself a few times, buying a car, or project car, or parts car, via an auction site of one sort or another.

On several other occasions I've come very close to it, having already made up my mind (and for cars, brought cash with me) before I physically turn up to look at it. And it's not just cars intended to be projects or salvage vehicles that I wanted for parts. I'll admit I'd already made up my mind before turning up to briefly walk through my current residence for the first time (so, not quite sight unseen, but getting gazumped a couple of times tends to hurry you up).

So how about a brand new vehicle? Would you buy the latest model off the manufacturer's website rather than through your nearest physical dealership? Turns out, the answer for some people is yes.

The thing is, almost everything you need to know about many purchases you make, big or small, is written down somewhere or otherwise researchable.

For a used or new vehicle that you're going to use regularly you want to know the costs (such as price, on-roads, insurance, servicing, and likely fuel/energy use), you want to know it's capable of your intended usage (some combination of details like seating capacity, tow rating, off-roading ability, luggage space, performance), the warranty and any related conditions, and whether someone else thinks it's nice to drive (performance again, comfort, ease of use, and so on).

The only thing some people need to check is whether they (or a close family member) physically fit comfortably and will be able to get in and out of it easily. You, or they, may have a physical limitation caused by disability or age, or they may just be a really big unit like an ex-rugby prop, or tiny like a jockey.

If you're average size and physically mobile though, you'll probably fit in anything, so even the vehicle's dimensions, and range of adjustment, are unlikely to be a concern.

Tiny "dealership" promotes an augmented reality sales platform. Photo: Volkswagen Australia.

Tiny "dealership" promotes an augmented reality sales platform. Photo: Volkswagen Australia.

In light of the fact that almost the entire decision making process is done with not even a dealer demonstrator present, Volkswagen Australia decided that a clever gimmick would be to create what they could claim to be the "world's smallest car dealership".

It's not really, though, because it's not actually a dealership. VW Australia's little creation is a 28cm tall model of a dealership that simply draws your attention to their new augmented reality (AR) experience. As marketing exercises go though, it was quite effective because it got the headlines it wanted.

As for our title question, "Many people wouldn't think that Australians are prepared to buy a car online, but they are," Jason Bradshaw, VW Australia's chief customer and marketing officer, said in a statement.

In the same statement, VW also pointed out "AR is playing an increasingly important role in consumer shopping experiences with one in two (49 percent) saying they would like to use AR as part of their online purchasing to get a better feel for a product."

They believe they're onto something too. Between mid-April and the October 27 launch of AR for their two smallest SUVs, Volkswagen Australia had already sold over 460 cars online to the value of AUD$36 million.

They say that this new augmented reality experience has been designed to let you "try on" one of these small SUVs.

I'm not sure that "try on" is the right phrase, but if your device is new enough to get AR working, it's a novel way to assist your research of a vehicle's overall suitability to your needs by complementing all the specifications and other info you can look up.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.