During the past couple of years, we’ve become ever more willing to shop online. However, the weekly shop is one thing – buying a car online is something else altogether. Would you really spend thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, on a vehicle you had never sat in, let alone test driven? Well, plenty of people do. Should you join them?

That’s where this guide comes in, as we talk you through everything you need to know to help you make an informed decision about whether or not buying online is the way to go to find the best tow car for you.

A new breed of online retailers

Internet vehicle sales are, in fact, nothing new. Virgin Cars was one of the pioneers, launching to much fanfare in 2000 with the endorsement of Top Gear’s Quentin Willson.

From May to October of that year, Virgin Cars sold 2000 cars worth £30 million, but this fell short of the 24,000 annual sales predicted by Richard Branson. In late 2005, it ceased trading.

Perhaps the problem for Virgin Cars was that consumers weren’t ready to spend so much money on a car online. Attitudes have changed, and over the past couple of years, several new names have decided the time is right for online car sales.

Carzam, Cazoo and Cinch are all aiming for the same market – internet-savvy consumers who value ease and convenience, and don’t want the added hassle of negotiating over price.

Carzam went live in late 2020, and sold 1000 cars in its first six weeks of trading. “Carzam exists to provide a superior end-to-end e-commerce experience to find, buy, sell and finance used cars online,” says Ashley Wade, Carzam’s marketing director.

Carzam launched in December 2020
Carzam, one of the ‘big three’ online dealerships, launched in December 2020

“For years, research has told us that customers do not enjoy or trust the traditional buying experience. What we provide is a completely transparent and hassle-free environment for customers to shop – after all, a car is a major purchase, and it’s not right that you should feel under pressure to commit to buying one in a showroom environment if that’s not where you’re comfortable.”

Rival firm Cinch launched in July 2019, and Cazoo started trading in December 2019. They have become the ‘big three’ of online car sales. The fine detail of their business models may differ, but essentially all three follow a similar approach for their customers: minimum hassle, maximum convenience.

Even if you don’t buy from one of these online specialists, many car dealers will now offer delivery to customers willing to buy sight unseen. So if you live in Penzance and you find your perfect car in Perth, it’s not necessarily a problem.

Buying a new car online

The big three online retailers specialise in used cars, although Cazoo also supplies new models through its subscription service (this is essentially car leasing by another name).

There’s plenty of choice in online vehicle sales these days, as new players have entered a growing market
There’s plenty of choice in online vehicle sales these days, as new players have entered a growing market

In fact, consumers have long since been buying new vehicles online without actually setting foot in a showroom. Brokers such as Carfile.net and Drivethedeal.com have offered discounted new cars over the telephone or the internet for years, and now, vehicle manufacturers are getting in on the act.

Hyundai launched its ‘Click to Buy’ service in November 2016, and Jaguar Land Rover and Smart are among other car makers now operating online sales platforms.

Peugeot launched its ‘Buy Online’ platform in January 2017, but it took until 2021 for the brand’s internet sales to really take off, with volumes doubling compared with 2020.

“It’s great to see an increasing number of Peugeot customers benefiting from our flexible buying process, with 15% of our retail customers now choosing to buy their new model online,” says Julie David, managing director of Peugeot UK.

“We introduced our online customer promise to give buyers the confidence that they will receive the same quality service as they do from our retailers, so it’s pleasing to see many
now enjoying the power of choice that our multi-channel approach provides.”

Cleverly, Peugeot offers some of the advantages of a traditional car dealership through its online sales platform. In what Peugeot calls a ‘Virtual Showroom’, you can speak to a person who will answer any questions you might have, with real-time one-to-one walk-arounds designed to show the car’s features.

These online assistants are described as ‘product specialists’ rather than sales people, so in theory, you shouldn’t be under any pressure to buy.

Your rights when buying a car online

It all sounds very convenient and straightforward – buying a car over the internet is no more difficult than shopping with Amazon. But what happens if something goes wrong?

The key thing to remember is that you have 14 days to cancel from the moment you receive the goods. In this case we’re talking about a car, but the same applies with any distance-selling contract under the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013.

Once you cancel, you then have 14 days to return the car, and the seller has 14 days to provide you with a refund.

Many online car sellers describe this as their ‘14-day money-back guarantee’, as if they are doing you a favour. They’re not. This is simply fulfilling their legal obligations.

Another important point to remember is that the vehicle doesn’t have to be faulty for you to make use of this legal right. Even if you simply change your mind about your purchase, you can still return the car and get your money back.

Disadvantages of buying online

The big downside to online buying is that it’s difficult, or impossible, to take a test drive before you decide.

In theory, you could view the 14-day cancellation period as an extended test drive, but there’s peace of mind in having driven a car before parting with any cash. It’s not just a case of making sure everything works as it should: looking over a car thoroughly and driving it on a variety of roads is the best way to be certain it is right for you.

Online retailers are well aware that this is the weak link in their proposition, so you can expect lots of images and a detailed description of the car.

Buying a car online – the key questions to ask

  • Does the car come with a warranty? Or would an extended warranty be made available at extra cost?
  • Is a walk-around video accessible?
  • How does the price compare with similar models to be found at regular dealerships?
  • Can I part-exchange my old car?
  • If buying on finance, is the deal competitive?
  • Does the car have a full service history?
  • Is collection available, as well as delivery?

So should I buy my next tow car online?

We’d still prefer the opportunity to see a car in the metal, and to test drive a few possible buys before settling on the right one.

On the other hand, many car buyers don’t really enjoy visiting dealerships, and will be attracted to the ease of buying from the comfort of home. If that sounds like you, the price is right, and you understand your legal rights, we wouldn’t put you off.

If you’re looking for a helping hand with identifying the towing vehicle for you, our guide on how to choose a tow car is sure to help, as we talk you through some of the crucial considerations.

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