How to buy a car online if you don’t want to visit a dealership

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With car dealerships now fully open, we can go back to the traditional way of buying a new car.  For a lot of people that’s showroom shopping on a Saturday morning, haggling over a set of mud-flaps and drinking a free cup of lukewarm coffee, writes James Batchelor. It’s a […]

With car dealerships now fully open, we can go back to the traditional way of buying a new car.  For a lot of people that’s showroom shopping on a Saturday morning, haggling over a set of mud-flaps and drinking a free cup of lukewarm coffee, writes James Batchelor.

It’s a process we’ve been happy to subject ourselves to for decades. It may not always be pleasant, but it’s a practice that largely works, for the car dealer as well as the customer.

However, lockdown has made us a nation of online shoppers. From book deliveries to takeaway food, Brits have dined out on the services of delivery drivers and rarely ventured beyond their doorsteps. So, could we now become a nation of online new car buyers, too?

How do online car brokers work?

Brokers have been selling brand new cars online for years, specialising in leveraging relationships with car manufacturers and passing this on to customers thanks to volume discounts. These firms buy large quantities of new cars in a variety of trims and colours, and offer them to buyers with a decent saving on the car’s recommended retail price.

car showroom – Jason Alden/Bloomberg

What is new, however, is car manufacturers offering brand new cars from their own websites. Here you’re dealing directly with the car maker. 

But how do you buy a car online? Can you still take a test drive? What happens if you want to reject the car? And, most importantly, is it the future? With the answers to those questions and more, here’s our guide to buying a brand new car online.

Which car makers offer online sales?

Car makers are quickly latching on to the benefits of selling new cars online by recognising how consumers’ buying habits have changed during lockdown. Many manufacturers are adding features to their websites that allow customers to search their local dealer’s stock list, apply for finance if necessary and collect the car or have it delivered to their houses. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, allows customers to search for a new or used car through their local dealer and have the car delivered to their home.

Mercedes A-class shooting brake

Some manufacturers are taking a leaf out of Tesla’s book with its new electric cars. Tesla owners famously buy their cars online and now Ford, the market leader which ostensibly has a dealership on every street corner, is changing its tack with its new Mustang Mach-E all-electric SUV. While you can’t buy a Fiesta online, you can buy a Mach-E; customers configure their car, choose their local dealer, pay a £1,000 deposit and wait for delivery. 

Only a handful of manufacturers offer a truly end-to-end online sales experience, though. Peugeot, Volvo and Dacia are prime examples, along with Hyundai, which was one of the earliest to offer the service.

How do I do it?

Each manufacturer runs its services a little differently, but Peugeot, Volvo, Dacia and Hyundai all offer essentially the same simple service. For instance, Hyundai’s ‘Click to Buy’ service allows customers to choose and configure a new car, get a trade-in valuation for their used car, select the payment method (cash, personal contact plan (PCP), personal loan or PCH) and pay a deposit.

young woman using laptop computer – Cultura/Twinpix

The online process takes about 20 minutes; delivery can take between two and 12 weeks and the car can be delivered to the customer’s door – only finance customers have to visit a showroom to sign the necessary paperwork. Meanwhile, Volvo’s online service allows customers to sign their finance documents electronically, meaning they never have to leave their home.    

Can I take a test drive and can I haggle?

The simple answer is yes to the former and no to the latter. While the appeal of buying a car online is that you can order a new car in the same way you order a bestselling novel, the likelihood is you’ll still want to touch, smell and drive the car before transacting online.

Mazda3 action – side – David F Smith

You can book a test drive on most manufacturers’ websites by filling out a contact form, but often you have to do that separately from the online transaction. Some manufacturers offer a more convenient service of booking a test drive with your local dealer on their online sales portal, like Hyundai’s ‘Click to Buy’, or having the car delivered to your house for the test drive, like with Mazda’s ‘MyWay’ service. 

If you enjoy haggling then online car sales probably isn’t for you. The main appeal of online car sales is that it simplifies the process, whereas haggling tends to complicate it.  

What are my rights on rejecting the car?

After purchase, you’ll have a 14-day ‘cooling off’ period to make up your mind. This is designed to help you get comfortable with your new car, and if you want to return it, you can.

But it’s essential for you to check the small print on the contract, as there may be a maximum number of miles you can cover during the 14-day period. It’s also important to remember that any damage to car is unlikely to be covered.

The clauses are designed to protect you and the manufacturer – not least because if you reject the car, it will become a used one. 

Is this the future of new car buying?

Buying cars online isn’t new, but up to now, most people still buy cars in the traditional way at dealerships. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has catalysed the trend of people transacting online for their next car. 

“We have seen a real spike in interest, understandably, since the start of the lockdown phase,” says Hyundai Motor UK managing director, Ashley Andrew. “Our expectation is that this will continue as customers preferences towards retail interaction evolve during this period.”

Online car buying won’t kill of the dealership though, Andrew believes: “I don’t think there is any digital innovation, whether it be virtual reality or online showrooms, that can replicate the excitement of seeing a new car in the metal, sitting in it and the visceral experience of the test drive.”

Andy Barratt, Ford of Britain MD, with Ford Fiesta 

Whether online car selling will eventually replace the need for dealerships isn’t clear yet, but there’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic is a turning point. “It’s changing societal behaviour in other aspects of retail and beyond,” says Andy Barratt, Ford of Britain’s managing director.

“We’ve already felt that with more ‘live chat’ interaction there’s a growing expectation to be able to click and collect or receive home delivery. These areas of our business were there before but they’re now higher up the list to develop further.” 

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