Coronavirus Is Exposing How Backward Car Buying Is

Saturn shopping in 2009. Author, author’s Saturn not pictured.
Saturn shopping in 2009. Author, author’s Saturn not pictured.
Photo: Getty Images

There are some people who know exactly what they want. An NB Mazda Miata, for example, is a perfectly fine car to lust for. Others, mainly Michiganders, have brand loyalty to some specific company, usually Chevy or Ford but also sometimes Buick. Others are happy to be able to afford whatever shit box they are currently running, no matter what it is.

Car buying is inherently a deeply unscientific process. How do you buy a car? In the old days, as I did once in 2009 when I moved back home to Ohio and needed some wheels, you surveyed your local dealers and went in and assessed what they had on hand and eventually settled on something.

You might also do some research, but it would never tell you much. Or at least nothing you didn’t already sort of know in your bones. The American manufacturers make cars that are boring and reliable-ish? Tell me something I don’t know! The Japanese manufacturers make cars that are both reliable and sometimes not boring? Get the fuck outta here! The German manufacturers make cars that are overpriced and expensive to maintain and signal to everyone that you’ve given up? You must be joking! Volvo is always the ideal car (until it’s not)? Yeah I know, buddy! My first three cars were Volvos.


You might also test drive a car you’re considering, to see how it feels. This can tell you a few things, like if it makes any suspicious noises, or if the transmission functions, or if the wheels have been recently aligned, but, in truth, dealers usually only let you do the lightest of tests. The real test comes much later, after you’ve put 5,000 miles on it or so and have been separated from your money. That’s when you really get to know the thing, when you can confirm just how hard you got fleeced.

This process hasn’t really changed pretty much ever, but because of coronavirus, dealers are finally (finally!) updating it for the age of the internet, according to Reuters. Well, a little bit, in part also because of pressure from online car sellers like Carvana:

However, online traffic for the 1,000 U.S. and Canadian dealers served by Roadster, which provides a digital sales platform for everything from financing paperwork to vehicle delivery, was up about 6%.

“Many dealerships are going to get caught with their pants down,” said Brian Benstock, a dealer in the New York City borough of Queens. “This will be a watershed moment for the dealership industry.”

Dealers have been doing business online for years, but it has never been a major focus. Only 15% of all transactions are online, according to a November survey of 540 dealers commissioned by the National Automobile Dealers Association. However, they expect online car sales to double by 2025.


Cox Automotive analyst Michelle Krebs said the outbreak will accelerate the wider adoption of services that allow customers to stay away from showrooms.

“It’s what people wanted going into this,” she said, citing a Cox January survey that found consumers cited vehicle pick-up and delivery as their top desire.

No one ever really needed to go into a showroom to buy a new car, at least in the past couple decades, as the truly terrible cars like the early Hyundais that made it here have all sort of given way to a base quality across the board that you can mostly trust. I mean almost any new car today will be... fine! Buying a used car, of course, is a different story, but that’s what pre-sale inspections are for.

Among new cars, the choices these days are also getting clearer by the day, as American automakers give up on small cars and there are simply fewer cars to compare, unless you are one of those who are deluded about the need for an SUV. That’s because in the more sensible corners of the market in 2020 it’s pretty clear a Subaru Crosstrek, as underpowered as it still is, is just fine. Or a Honda Fit, even though Honda has refused to bring the fourth generation Fit to the U.S. Or a Toyota Yaris Hatchback, which starts at $17,750.


I have a Fit now, but back in 2009 I ended up driving off the lot with a 2003 Saturn Ion, which I got for somewhere around $9,000. That was a decent deal at the time for an Ion with low mileage, probably in part thanks to the Great Recession. And probably in part because even at a discount, absolutely no one has ever desired to drive an Ion.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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Hayden Lorell

While I would agree that the dealer system is flawed and ridiculous.

As a consumer I also appreciate being able to go and see the product in person. See what the colors look like in real light, not on a computer. Sit in the seats and test out ergonomics. Drive it to see what its like.

Without the ability to test drive I would have bought a current WRX without realizing my legs are too long for the dead-pedal and it leaves my (damaged) knee bent at an angle where if I drive for more than 15 minutes I’m gonna be in pain getting out. Or that the new GLI is really fun on paper but get behind the wheel and its more meh than wheeeeeee, to say nothing of the melted down barbie dolls they used to build the dashboard. Without the ability to test drive I wouldn’t have known that what my life is missing is a Miata RF GT-S.

Get rid of the dealers, sure, but give us test drive centers with plenty of stock so I’m not buying blind.