- Key Features: TruePrice (transparent pricing on new and used cars); local vehicle search tools; leasing options; partner discounts for customers of companies such as Starbucks
- Advantages: TruePrices generated near-instantaneously and include a wealth of information; new, used, and leased cars available; TruePrice often represents a significant discount to MSRP; TruePrices aren’t obligatory and can be undercut; partner discounts can be worth $500 or more per transaction; no out-of-pocket costs for customers
- Disadvantages: No direct sales; no vehicle financing; no framework for private vehicle sales
Do you relish haggling over the price of a new or used car? Many people don’t. Negotiating on price and extras can be an awkward experience, particularly if you’re inexperienced or simply aren’t a confrontational person. Preparing for a negotiation requires time- and labor-intensive research too.
TrueCar doesn’t completely eliminate the need to negotiate the price of a new, used, or leased car, but its powerful research engine and price intelligence tools do increase the chances of a fairer outcome for buyers. Using near-real-time pricing data culled from actual U.S. car-buying transactions, TrueCar helps buyers zero in on an acceptable final price and reduces the risk that they’ll pay more than they should — a major worry for any buyer, no matter how experienced.
TrueCar’s signature product is the TruePrice. Most new vehicle makes and models, rare and high-end cars excluded, have a TruePrice. The TruePrice is TrueCar’s best estimate of a particular vehicle’s current fair value in a particular location — what local buyers should pay at that moment.
TrueCar’s model relies on thousands of dealer partners — known as TrueCar Certified Dealers — that agree to share their pricing data, including estimated taxes and other fees not typically included in the sticker price. TrueCar Certified Dealers can be found coast to coast in virtually all major markets.
Getting Your TruePrice
To retrieve a TruePrice for a particular vehicle make and model, simply select your preferred make and model and enter your ZIP code. From there, you can either customize the vehicle you’re looking for using TrueCar’s comprehensive trim, color, and options menu or allow TrueCar to choose a “default build” using the most commonly selected trim, color, and options.
Based on your selections, TrueCar presents:
- A “build summary” detailing the vehicle make, model, trim, color, specs, and options
- The vehicle’s MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price)
- The vehicle’s average selling price in your market
- The vehicle’s TruePrice
- Current inventory at local Certified Dealers
You’ll need to create a free TrueCar account to see local inventory and agree to allow Certified Dealers to contact you directly by phone or text (or both) to see the TruePrice. Bear in mind that actual vehicle selection might not exactly match your custom or default build and that the displayed inventory might not be identical — both factors that could affect the TruePrice for a given vehicle.
Once generated, typically within seconds, there’s no strict time limit on how long a TruePrice remains valid. However, the TruePrice can vary as new information about recent sales, recalls, and other factors comes to light. Once the price changes, dealers are free not to honor any previous prices. The TruePrice usually comes in below MSRP, but if you’re inclined to drive a hard bargain, it’s best to view the TruePrice as a starting point for further negotiation rather than the dealer’s bottom dollar.
Also, the TruePrice is only available on in-stock vehicles. To avoid issues, get your TruePrice within a day or two of contacting the dealer and make sure your chosen vehicle is in stock.
In addition to its core TruePrice system, TrueCar has several free features that help with different aspects of the car-buying, -selling, and -trading processes:
Vehicle Trade-In Quotes
TrueCar has an easy-to-use trade-in valuation tool that helps car owners arrive at a fair, accurate valuation for potential trade-in vehicles before they show up at the dealership. To use it, simply enter your unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or state license plate number and answer some general questions about the vehicle and its condition. The result is an instantaneous “TrueCash Offer” that you can take to participating Certified Dealers.
Discounts for Partner Customers
TrueCar occasionally offers discounts — typically at least $500, but sometimes more — for customers of certain partner companies, such as Starbucks. These discounts are applied to the TruePrice after any manufacturer or dealer incentives.
TrueCar has a separate used car vertical with its own set of TruePrices and the same extensive dealer network. Just choose your make, enter your ZIP code, and filter your search however you please. All results should show TruePrices with fees and charges included. There’s also a built-in monthly payment estimator. One downside: there’s no way to estimate private-party sale prices, which can be lower for buyers than dealer sale prices.
If you’re interested in leasing a car rather than buying one outright, TrueCar has a separate leasing vertical that pairs you with relevant inventory from Certified Dealers. According to TrueCar, customers save more than $3,000 on average off leased cars’ MSRPs.
Tools for Buyers and Lessees
TrueCar has some useful value-added tools for would-be buyers and lessees, including separate cost calculators for car loans and leases and a model comparison tool that shows the major differences between vehicle models at a glance.
- Rapid Turnaround Time for TruePrices. TrueCar compiles TruePrices for specific vehicle makes and models nearly instantaneously. This makes it a great tool for time-pressed shoppers who want to gather their TruePrice and visit the dealer within the same day. Smaller competitors can take a lot longer to put final pricing together.
- TruePrice Calculations Incorporate Tremendous Amounts of Information. TrueCar’s TruePrice isn’t just accurate and transparent. It’s also extremely refined, incorporating not only near-real-time market data but all known dealer-paid fees, such as destination charges, fuel surcharges, freight fees, and regional advertising fees. Knowing exactly how much the dealer paid reduces the likelihood of a misunderstanding during the negotiation process, or even a breakdown in negotiations due to the buyer making and sticking to an unreasonably low offer.
- New, Used, and For-Lease Cars Available. TrueCar offers a full slate of price intelligence and buyer assistance services for new and used car buyers and those looking to lease too. This is a big advantage over competitors that deal primarily or exclusively with used cars.
- TruePrice Often Offers Likely Savings. Because the TruePrice is usually lower than MSRP, sometimes by thousands of dollars, it provides less-experienced buyers with a strong starting point for negotiations — or, if you prefer, a final price that the dealer is likely to accept. Some TrueCar competitors, including Kelley Blue Book, only provide general price guidelines.
- Leaves Room for Haggling at the Dealer. Although the TruePrice is often used as a final purchase price, it’s not binding. Buyers are always free to use the TruePrice as a starting point for negotiations, and dealers are free to entertain a lower price or refuse to budge from the TruePrice.
- Partner Discounts Promise Even Better Deals for Certain Customers. TrueCar’s partner discounts promise even better deals (compared to the TrueCar Price) for customers who belong to loyalty programs run byTrueCar partner organizations, such as Starbucks.
- No Out-of-Pocket Costs for Buyers. Except the cost of the car, that is. You don’t have to pay anything to use TrueCar to find inventory and pricing on new and used cars in your area, whether you choose to go ahead with your purchase or not. Cash only changes hands when you sign the dotted line at the dealership.
- No Direct Sales. TrueCar doesn’t directly sell new or used cars. Instead, you need to take your TruePrice value to a certified dealer and complete the purchase with them. By contrast, some competitors — notably CarMax — operate a network of hundreds of car dealerships across the United States. You complete much of the research and shopping process online, then actually buy your vehicle in person from the same company. Needless to say, direct sales is a more seamless approach that doesn’t involve a third-party broker.
- No Vehicle Financing. TrueCar doesn’t offer vehicle financing. If you’re not buying your car with cash, you need to secure financing from your bank, credit union, or the dealer’s financing partner.
- No Ads for Private Used Car Sales. TrueCar doesn’t have a classified-type section that allows car owners to advertise used cars for sale. If you’d prefer to buy used in a private-party transaction, you’ll need to use another intermediary like Craigslist.
Every car-buying experience is different. Because I’d already committed to sell my ailing old car and was in the process of a long-distance move, my most recent car purchase didn’t involve a lot of shopping around. In fact, I was so pressed for time that I barely even attempted to negotiate the sale price or investigate what other dealers were charging.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’d sold my old car for more than it was worth and that, due to the move, I’d never give the dealer another dime for repair or maintenance work. But by any objective measure, I got a bad deal.
Your next car purchase probably won’t be as disorganized as mine. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be affected by outside considerations, such as the amount of time you have or the need to protect yourself from inflation. Although TrueCar and its ilk help you objectively evaluate automotive value, they can’t solve every car-buying problem.
TrueCar’s biggest advantages revolve around its up-to-the-minute, fully transparent TruePrice, the potential for guaranteed savings, and the fact that the TruePrice can serve as the basis for further negotiation rather than being set in stone. On the other hand, TrueCar doesn’t actually buy or sell vehicles, or even directly advertise private vehicles for sale, so it’s not ideal for buyers who want a one-stop shopping experience.
Fully transparent factory invoice prices, often-guaranteed savings, potential for deeper discounts, and long-term price locks all work in TrueCar’s favor. No direct sales and no private-party sale advertisements count against. Overall, TrueCar is definitely worth consulting if you’re in the market for a new or used car.