You can take back that little black dress to Saks Fifth Avenue if it’s too tight.

You can return the gas grill you purchased from Costco because it’s bigger than the back deck. But what happens when you try to return a car to a dealer?

“It all depends,” says Marshall Vyletel, general manger of Vyletel Buick-Volkswagen in Sterling Heights, MI, where I bought my ill-fated ’02 VW Passat in too much of a hurry. How long would I have to repent? How much penance must I pay for momentary indecision?

I’d bought the car on a Friday night, rushing Vyletel’s service department through its 112-point technician inspection so I’d have new wheels for the weekend.

My ’95 Jetta GL had sprung a massive oil leak, and its dependability was compromised. “Sell it while it still rolls,” I thought.

Selecting the Passat the night before, without seeing how it looked in daylight or a sense of how it handled on highways or fit into narrow urban parking lots, was shortsighted.

“Omigod, I’ve bought the wrong vehicle,” I said to myself with repeated anxiety over a very long, stress-inducing weekend of mental chastising for not engaging in a thorough search-and-acquire mission.

Having owned VW Jettas for 20 years, driving each one to the ground, I didn’t need Consumer’s Reports to tell me what brand worked for comfort, style and zippy response.

I’d checked prices online and honed in on a great deal. Now was time at last to upgrade to VW’s bigger sedan. The Passat was a plushmobile with a bigger console and better suspension. But it wasn’t zippy.

Buyer’s remorse when it comes to automobiles is not all that common, says Vyletel, who retails more than 2,000 new and used vehicles a year.

“Most customers know more than our rookie sales people about a vehicle, because they do so much research on the Internet and in car magazines. Most of them take long test drives to be certain.”

To be sure, a car, unlike buying a dress, barbecue grill or computer, is a complex piece of machinery that meets federal safety standards and factory operating standards.

To buy one, customers sign up to 15 documents that, among other things, secure a loan and register the car with the state’s motor vehicle licensing department.

A Ford Motor Co. spokesman says a vehicle title is a legal document that verifies current mileage and new or used condition.

The Utah Division of Consumer Protection stipulates there is no 3-day rescission law that applies to motor-vehicle purchases.

Few states have such a provision. California adopted one last year in a compromise that offered certain rights to consumers but didn’t make dealers feel they were being duped into providing free 3-day rentals.

Once a titled new car leaves the lot, it loses at least $3,000 or $4,000 in value when titled as used. Dealerships may have more latitude with used vehicles, but the vehicle still must undergo an overhaul to assure its safety and operation upon return.

Car dealers base their credibility on selling functional vehicles. But a few retailers wrestle with how to satisfy a distraught customer.

“We probably get three or four a year – people who aren’t happy with the radio system or overall style,” Vyletel says. “We allow them to return the car if the sale happened within three days, mileage is low and they purchase another vehicle from us.”

Studies conducted by CarMax, a dealership chain retailing 307,000 vehicles (mostly used) at its 67 stores across the U.S. in 2005, found 78% of car purchasers wished they could return a car within the first few days of buying it.

Only 22% of respondents said they never experienced buyer’s remorse.

“That’s the reason why we continue offering a money-back guarantee for five days; it guarantees quality and comfort,” says Trina Lee of CarMax.

The Richmond, VA, chain doesn’t require the customer making a return to buy another product, noting it is quite a rare occurrence for their customers to return cars.

A spokesman for General Motors Corp.’s Saturn Div., says the brand offers a 30-day return policy, but few customers avail themselves to it. Other GM divisions don’t follow suit.

“Customers have all kinds of opportunities to test drive a vehicle, and warranties are so strong today that anything mechanical can be taken care of right away,” says a GM spokeswoman.

GM offered a 24-hour test drive in 2004 that allowed qualified buyers to take a vehicle home, show it off to the relatives and see if it matched lifestyle and horsepower passions.

But the high cost of administering the program to dealerships across the country didn’t deliver enough sales to extend the offer permanently.

The notion of a 30-day return policy continues to gather subtle interest. Chrysler Group is offering a 30-day return plan with some provisions to customers this summer for the first time in more than 20 years.

A Chrysler spokesman says the company plans to give the return policy a trial run to see if it contributes to sales. Early reports have found no takers.

The spokesman says the previous offer of purchasing vehicles at 5% below dealer invoice generated far more attention.

Some dealers do have liberal policies.

Vyletel made sure I was happy the second time around. Salesman Bob LaFave found a white ’02 Jetta GL with just 32,000 miles (51,500 km), ran it through the 112-point factory certification process, cleaned, waxed and filled it with gas at no charge. They had paperwork ready for signature when I arrived.

After an extended test drive, I returned happy. LaFave later called to check on my satisfaction. He sent a birthday and holiday card, as well. I’m beaming almost a year later.

Would I refer other customers to this dealership? You betcha.

Meanwhile, Shirley Lichti, CEO of Marketing Magic, often trains dealers on how to minimize post-purchase anxiety.

    Here are some tips:
  • Summarize the product’s benefits after the purchase.
  • Repeat why the product is better than the alternatives.
  • Emphasize how satisfied the customer will be.
  • Provide toll-free telephone numbers or e-mail addresses to encourage communication with sales and service.
  • Offer liberalized return and refund policies.
  • Take a photo of the customer beside the new car. Announce the sale on the loud speaker. Applaud as the car is driven off the lot.