Car Buying During COVID: How The Top Sites Stack Up
COVID-19 has triggered some of the biggest changes to car buying in the past 50 years. Dealers are shifting more of the shopping experience online and limiting the need to visit the dealership.
But not all dealership experiences are the same. It's been over a year and many are still playing catch-up. Let's take a look at how the top car shopping platforms' digital experiences and contactless delivery compare to each other.
In this analysis, we'll look at Carvana, Vroom, TrueCar, and CarGurus, considering factors such as digital processes, contactless delivery, and consistency across networks.
Table of Contents
- Car Shopping During COVID - Comparing Platforms
- Carvana's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
- Vroom's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
- CarMax's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
- TrueCar's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
- CarGurus's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
- Best Car Deals by Category
- Frequently Asked Questions
Before we breakdown each platform, there's an important distinction to be made between them; national dealerships versus dealer marketplaces. As a consumer, the difference may not be immediately obvious when browsing cars, but it makes a big impact on the overall buying experience.
National Dealerships: Carvana, Vroom, and CarMax. These companies have their own locations and inventory, and as a result are able to enforce consistent, nationwide policies and procedures.
Dealer Marketplaces: TrueCar and CarGurus (and similar sites like Cars.com, CarsDirect, Autotrader, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book). These companies do not have their own locations or inventory and instead connect consumers with their networks of independent car dealers. Some have voluntary contactless delivery programs, but they are hard to enforce, and digital experiences vary across participating dealerships.
Let's take a look at each car buying website.
Car Shopping During COVID - Comparing Platforms
(Buying, Selling, Financing)
Carvana's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
Carvana is a fully online used car dealership. You can completely buy and sell a car digitally without any direct contact through their Touchless Delivery and Trade-In Program. All paperwork is left in the vehicle to avoid direct contact.
Since Carvana does not rely on independent dealerships, they are able to consistently manage their digital experience and COVID-19 safety measures across their footprint.
- Buy Online and Delivery. Carvana lets you find and buy a car entirely online. Prior to delivery, Carvana requires a copy of your driver's license with a selfie. The vehicle will be sanitized before being dropped off. All necessary paperwork is left in the car, and the Carvana associate will stay in the hauler while you check out the vehicle. If everything checks out, you can leave the final paperwork with any titles or checks in a secure spot for the associate to review and finalize.
- Sell Online and Pick-Up. Carvana also offers a touchless trade-in process with an online appraisal. An associate will call and ask you to leave the car in an accessible and safe spot. Once they arrive, they'll place any paperwork on the windshield. While you review and sign any paperwork, they'll test drive and sanitize the vehicle before returning. All paperwork is left in the vehicle, and there is no direct contact involved.
- Finance Online. You can get pre-qualified for financing online with rates that are valid for 45 days.
Check out our full review of Carvana here.
- Sales hubs nationwide
- Strong COVID-19 safety and sanitization measures
- Haggle-free prices
- Completely hands-free buying and trading
- 360-degree view of vehicles
- Carvana Vending Machine allows for pickup
- No pre-purchase test drive
- Some buyer complaints about poor support after purchase
- Delivery fee depending on distance
Carvana Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Vroom's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
Similar to Carvana, Vroom is another fully online used car dealership. Vroom users can buy and sell online and use their Contact-Free Delivery Service. Paperwork is left in the vehicle for you to sign in your home, and the driver will maintain a safe distance.
Like Carvana, Vroom also maintains its own inventory and thereby is able to offer a consistent experience nationwide. However, Vroom has a worse return policy (7-day/250 miles) compared to Carvana's (7-day/400 miles), and buyers who are dissatisfied with their vehicle are likely to be out an extra few hundred dollars due to Vroom’s $599 restocking fee.
- Buy Online and Delivery. Vroom's buying process is comparable to Carvana's. You can line up your car online and arrange delivery. When the driver arrives, they will leave the keys and any paperwork in the vehicle and walk a safe distance away. You can then inspect the car, sign the paperwork, and leave it inside the vehicle.
- Sell Online and Pick-Up. You can get an online appraisal that is good for 7 days. If you accept their offer, you can fill out any paperwork and transfer the title to Vroom from your home. The driver will pick up your vehicle, and you'll have to sign the bill of lading after they inspect the vehicle.
- Finance Online. You can apply for financing online. While Carvana has a single captive lending provider, Vroom uses a network of 12+ banks and lending partners to offer competitive rates. If you finance with Vroom, they will register the vehicle on your behalf and send you the registration and plates.
Check out our full review of Vroom here.
- Completely online buying and selling
- Haggle-free prices
- Accident-free vehicles with CarFax report
- 90-day or 6,000-mile warranty and 1-year roadside assistance
- No direct contact
- No pre-purchase test drive
- Weak return policy (7-day or 250 miles)
- Financing through Vroom requires a minimum annual income of $21,600
- Average vehicle cost around $30,000
- Potential restocking fee of $599
Vroom Overall Rating: 3.5/5
CarMax's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
CarMax is on our list with perhaps the largest list of safety measures, citing over 100 different points used to ensure each buyer's safety throughout their vehicle selection process. They also boast the strongest return policy of all websites in our list with their 30-day/1,500-mile return period and a “no questions asked” return policy for the first week after each vehicle is bought.
- Buy Online and Delivery. Once you decide on a vehicle, CarMax has two options. In select markets, CarMax will deliver to your home if you live within 60 miles of a store. Or, you can buy it online and have it shipped to your nearest CarMax location for pickup through CarMax Curbside. You will complete most of the paperwork from home but go to the nearest CarMax location to test drive and finalize the purchase. CarMax disinfects the car before and after the test drive, and the CarMax employee will remain 6 feet away from you.
- Sell Online and Pick-up. If you want to trade-in your current vehicle with CarMax Curbside, they will send you an appraisal request link to your smartphone. You will have to take photos of your car and upload its history, condition, and pictures. You then must schedule an appointment or walk into a CarMax location to notify them. They offer low-touch appraisals without sitting in your car or touching the most used areas. The appraiser will maintain a distance of 6 feet away and ask you to turn the car on and off and open or close any windows, doors, or trunks. The appraiser will only test drive your car if you decide to sell your vehicle.
- Finance Online. CarMax offers financing approval online.
Check out our full review of CarMax here.
- 100+ COVID-19 safety and sanitization measures
- Haggle-free prices
- 5-day no questions asked return policy
- 30-day or 1,500-mile return policy after first week
- No delivery fee within 50 miles
- 24-hour test drives
- Fees for store-to-store shipping
- Selling or appraisal requires store visit
- The process may require store visit
CarMax Overall Rating: 3.5/5
TrueCar's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
Unlike the previous platforms we reviewed, TrueCar (and CarGurus, up next) are not online dealerships but instead marketplaces that connect prospective buyers with their nationwide network of dealers. Because of this, buyers that opt to use TrueCar’s website are at the mercy of individual dealerships. And COVID-19 safety measures are largely dependent on the individual dealership.
- Buy Online and Delivery. TrueCar's Buy From Home Program allows buyers to handle all aspects of buying a car without going to the dealership. However, only certified dealers with the Buy From Home badge offer this service. If you use a certified dealership, you can do most of the paperwork remotely, with some dealerships allowing it to be done completely online. Some dealerships will also deliver your vehicle within 50 miles and pick-up any trade-in vehicle.
- Sell Online and Pick-Up. You can get estimates or offers from local dealers online. A certified dealer will then explain in person everything that goes into your car's evaluation and give you a True Cash Offer. Overall, an appraisal is available online, but a dealership visit is most likely still required.
- Finance Online. Online financing varies by dealer.
Check out our full review of TrueCar here.
- 50-mile delivery range (fees may vary)
- Prices are negotiable
- Pickup available (depends on dealership)
- Paperwork can be done remotely
- Test drives available
- Potential higher prices if you limit yourself to Buy From Home dealers (less competition)
- Many amenities and services vary based on dealership
- Dealership visits may be required or highly recommended
TrueCar Overall Rating: 2/5
CarGurus's Digital Experience & Safety Measures
CarGurus is similar to TrueCar in that they work with traditional car dealerships and display inventory listings supplemented with research tools and reviews.
The major downside to CarGurus is that they do not technically operate as an authorized seller or dealer of vehicles; instead, CarGurus state they only offer buyers information on the online car buying process and connections to their dealership partners.
- Buy Online and Delivery (depends on dealership). Since CarGurus doesn't directly buy or sell vehicles, many services vary by dealership which you can filter down in their search window. Some participating dealerships allow you to schedule a private appointment or set up a virtual appointment with the dealer to get a video tour of the car. Some also offer a contactless purchase where you can pay or finance the car remotely, either by phone or email. All paperwork will be delivered to your home. Participating dealers will also offer free test drives at home and deliver the vehicle if you are within 25 miles of the dealership.
- Sell Online and Pick-Up. CarGurus allows you to list your car for sale on their site. You can sell to either a private party or to a dealership. They offer a guided tool to walk you through the transaction process. CarGurus also offers an online appraisal tool that gives you an Instant Market Value and estimated trade-in value of your car. However, in-person interactions with a private party or dealer are still necessary.
- Finance Online. Online financing varies by dealer.
- Contactless buying and selling
- Prices are negotiable
- You can sell your car to a private party or the dealership
- 24-hour test drive
- Delivery available within 25 miles of participating dealers
- Online car buying resources
- Only offers information and connections to dealers
- Potential higher prices if you limit to dealers participating in contactless services (less competition)
- Services and fees vary by dealership
- COVID measures vary by dealership
CarGurus Overall Rating: 3/5
Overall, the national online car dealerships (Carvana, Vroom, and CarMax) are leading the charge into digital retailing because they control the entire buying process and inventory.
Dealer marketplace websites (TrueCar, CarGurus, and similar sites like KBB and Cars.com) are inconsistent because they are reliant on participating dealers to self-declare their policies and self-police. They are moving in the right direction, but they need to get to a place where all of their dealerships are participating.
CarMax offers online services for buying and selling and puts a lot of effort into COVID safety practices, but some steps in the process may require a store visit. And while Vroom offers a complete online experience, it has a poor return policy and isn't as detailed and thorough as Carvana.
Best Overall Pick: Carvana
Our top pick is Carvana, the clear winner with an all-digital process and contactless buying and selling.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you buy and sell a car completely online with Carvana?
Carvana offers a completely touchless process for car buying and pickup. A driver will drop off or pick up your vehicle, and paperwork can be done without direct contact.
Can you buy and sell a car completely online with Vroom?
Vroom offers contact-free delivery and pickup. A delivery driver will drop or pickup your vehicle and leave any necessary paperwork in the car. There is no direct contact involved.
Can you buy and sell a car completely online with CarMax?
You can handle most of the car buying process online with CarMax. CarMax will deliver the vehicle within 60 miles of a store. CarMax Curbside allows for most of the paperwork to be done online, but a store visit is required for the final steps of the process. An appraisal requires an in-store visit, but CarMax has safety measures in place for COVID-19.
Can you buy and sell a car completely online with TrueCar?
Like CarGurus, it depends on the dealership. Dealerships with the "Buy From Home" badge will allow for the paperwork to be done remotely or online and deliver the vehicle within 50 miles. An appraisal can be done online, but a dealership visit is required for the final steps of the process.
Can you buy and sell a car completely online with CarGurus?
Like TrueCar, it depends on the dealership. Some dealerships will allow for a private or virtual appointment, and some will allow for the paperwork to be done remotely. Participating dealerships will deliver within 25 miles. You can list your car for sale on CarGurus, but the rest of the process is handled on your own.