To most people, it's right up there with apple pie and motherhood. If you're buying a new car, these folks think you should (and must always have the right to) take a test drive first.

But the times they are a-changin', as Bill McLean of Northeast found out the other day at Ourisman Chevrolet in Marlow Heights.

While having his clunker repaired at Ourisman, Bill wandered into the showroom to check out the new models. "I suddenly decided that I wanted to test drive a new Camaro Z-28," says Bill.

He was referred to a manager, who told him, "We don't allow people to test drive Z-28s unless they've already got their money down and are committed to buy."

"So much for, 'You always get your way at Ourisman Chevrolet,' " observed a sadder-but-wiser Bill.

I suspect Bill would have met with a warmer reception if he'd asked to test drive a station wagon, rather than the zippiest car in the joint. Still, there is method to Ourisman's seeming madness. It's called foiling thieves.

"We have had a lot of cars stolen," said Alan Szymkowiak, general sales manager for Ourisman. "Recently, a guy stole a Z-28 right out of the lot . . . . He asked to test drive a Z-28. Our salesman went with him. They returned to the lot. The salesman got out and the guy drove off. We have had three instances like that so far this year."

Now, don't waste a lot of time weeping for Ourisman. Those three stolen Z-28s were undoubtedly insured up to their rooflines. Still, theft is theft, and if test drives make Z-28s vanish, I can understand Ourisman's position.

One last sacrilegious thought:

Are test drives really necessary any more?

Maybe if you're buying something to enter in Indianapolis next year. But be honest: If you're shopping for a family car, don't you buy it based on price, looks, size and color rather than on some vague reaction to how it handles when you take it once around the block?

This isn't to say that dealers shouldn't offer -- or provide -- test drives if family-car customers want them. But it's a little like the old bit of blowing into the phone "to clear the line." Most of the time, you really don't need to do it any more.