Buying & Leasing a Car

New-Car Shopping for the Introvert: Still a Hassle

For new-car shoppers, the quest to find a fair, fixed price and complete the transaction online remains elusive.

Does the very idea of car shopping give you the prickly hives? Going toe-to-toe with salespeople who, let’s face it, have a few negotiating tricks up their sleeve has intimidated car buyers for decades. So the prospect of doing the entire transaction online—without fielding calls and e-mails from dealers—at a fair, fixed price is tantalizing.

If you’re shopping for a used car, you can just about do that. Building on CarMax’s fixed-price model, Vroom and Carvana let you pick a car online, line up financing and have it delivered to your doorstep. No fuss, no muss, no “C’mon down to the showroom and let’s talk.”

For new-car shoppers, this quest remains more elusive. In theory, you can get awfully close to buying a new car online, though state laws requiring actual signatures on paper documents and red tape for financing approvals are often an impediment.

But here’s the catch for those of us who, like Greta Garbo, just want to be left alone: Every option I looked at required you to put in some contact information, at some point, to move ahead. On one site, I gave up my cell-phone number to receive a text with the price. Instead, I got a message to come in for a test drive, promising an additional $500 for a trade-in that I didn’t have. Another specifically offered to “respect my privacy” and stick to e-mail, then immediately texted and called me.

Buyers’ services. Having generated dozens of false leads for sales reps to chase (sorry, guys), I decided to take a step back and look at the traditional path to less hassle and less haggle: a buyers’ service.

TrueCar is the big player in the field. If you use a car-buying service from Consumer Reports, AAA, Geico or Sam’s Club (and many others), you’re engaging with TrueCar. You pick the car you want, put in your information, and presto: You get prices on dozens of models near you. TrueCar now gives you the vehicle identification number (VIN) with the price. That means you can get that actual car—for the price shown—at one of the participating dealers per the TrueCar Price Report.

What’s not to like about that? For one, just as with the dealer sites, you have to put in your contact info to get the offers, so a barrage of phone calls and e-mails from sales reps will follow. Another veteran car-buying service, CarBargains, says it can save you hundreds of dollars over TrueCar’s prices. You pay $250 up front to receive at least five bids from car dealers near you. CarBargains, which is run by the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook organization, goes shopping the old-fashioned way: pitting dealers against each other. CarBargains also points out that it gets no money from dealers—which TrueCar and the Costco Auto Program, also a player in this field, do. That’s why it claims to be the true buyers’ service.

There’s a fundamental appeal to CarBargains’ approach. But what you get for your $250 is a long, wonky PDF file, with worksheets that you’re supposed to print out and mark up. Plus, you’re still the closer. It’s up to you to go to the dealership (with your pencil and worksheet) to get your bid.

And once you’ve set foot in the dealer’s showroom, no matter who got you there, you’ll need to make a stop at the finance and insurance office. That’s where the dealer will offer you all sorts of stuff: extended warranties, paint coatings, floor mats. At the F&I office, you’ll have to keep your guard up to be sure your total cost stays in line with what you planned to spend. So you’ll still need to keep your “no thank you” skills sharp.

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