WARC US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor gives a first-hand account of what it's like to travel through the automotive sales funnel in the US in 2022, at a time when new cars are hard to come by.

This article is part of the July 2022 WARC Spotlight US series, “Consumers drive automotive toward change.” Read more

Buying a new car is not a process most in the US like, even if the end-result – a shiny vehicle, filled with the latest bells and whistles – makes it ultimately worth it.

But in 2022, if you’re in marketing, at least the torturous journey offers an intimate look into the factors roiling the car market, as awareness of the global chip shortage, and other issues, prepare you for oddities that were unthinkable a few years ago; prospective car buyers find themselves navigating limited options.

Car ads still dominate the airwaves, but they seem almost completely superfluous; in fact, as my husband and I began looking for a new car last March, the adage “You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” kept coming to mind. Usually recited to four-year-olds when their favorite ice cream flavor is unavailable, it takes on an entirely different spin when it’s about a car worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Our process probably mirrored that of many current car buyers, in that – for a long time, supply chain issues and auto inflation made us hold off. The strangeness of the US car market is such that many used cars are now selling for more than when they were new. The Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is currently selling for 13.5% more used, according to ISeeCars.

But as one of our cars is a 1997 Volvo that has a headlight that pops out of its socket on a whim, and a driver’s side door that requires a shove to open from the inside – making such a purchase became a necessity.

Our parameters

We are old school. When we began our process, there was no discussion about buying a car online. No Carmax. No Carvana. For us, buying a car means driving it – or in the current environment, its reasonable facsimile. We want to hear how the door sounds when it shuts, how big the blind spots are, how sensitive the brakes are. We want to experience the car.

Also, regrettably, no electric vehicle, as US infrastructure doesn’t yet work well enough for a couple that makes frequent 300-mile one-way drives to rural New Hampshire.

We also wanted to buy new, with the objective of eventually driving the new car into the ground. We drove our Mazda MPV mini-van until, alarmingly, the car mechanic said it was so corroded that the engine might drop out at high speed. Our aim for our 2015 Subaru, which currently has 140,000 miles on it, is to get it to at least 250,000 miles.

Our first dealership – Subaru

Especially with inventory scarce, our well-embedded brand preferences proved even more so. Why consider a new brand when it probably isn’t even available? And so, our first destination was a Subaru dealership to drive a Crosstrek, a smaller version of the Subaru Outback. Revisiting Subaru was a reminder of the power of both word-of-mouth and experience in car buying. Our current Subaru has delivered on exactly the elements people have always raved about: its reputation for being exceptionally safe, particularly in snow, and its longevity.

The salesman warned us we’d be test-driving a used vehicle. While he prepared the car, we ogled a gleaming orange Crosstrek sitting in the most prominent space in the showroom. But it was not what it seemed – it was from 2019, and if you looked closely, you’d notice some rust on the wheels. The Crosstrek we drove – also from 2019 – felt much like our current Subaru, which was both reassuring, and boring. The dealer laid out the situation for obtaining an elusive new Crosstrek: with the exception of one coming into the dealer in about ten days, we may have to wait “four or five months” for a new one, even though, he offered hopefully, the wait might be shorter. Would our Volvo even survive that long?

Our second dealership – Volkswagen

It’s been six years since the second of our two manual-transmission VW Jettas met its maker, by way of a $500 trade-in that slightly drove down the Subaru’s cost. It’s our other favorite brand, because VWs drive sort of like BMWs, but at a much lower price point. As with most foreign brands, VW has long ago mainly acceded to the American preference for automatic transmissions. According to CarMax, 96% of American drivers drive them, which some attribute to the American fondness for multi-tasking behind the wheel. Whatever the case, knowing how to drive a manual transmission here is becoming a lost art, like using paper and pencil to score a baseball game.

So, when we show up at a nearby dealership – the one whose current commercial on local cable touts the great warranty packages on its used cars – to drive a small, sporty GTI, only a battleship gray automatic is available. Still, as my husband accelerates on a nearby interstate, the salesman Charles in the back seat, he gets a gleam in his eye, and I know the VW – and given the lack of inventory, this VW – has officially entered our consideration set.

Together we go to the local Toyota dealer on a Saturday to see if we can drive a Corolla Cross, Toyota’s version of the Crosstrek. The place is teeming with people, prospective buyers climbing in and out of cars, and salespeople laying out financing options. When we finally get to a salesperson, he tells us there are none of that model in stock, and he’ll call us for a test drive when there is. He never does.

A shift – towards a car no one wants

The feel of the GTI continues to captivate my husband, but so does the idea it would be even better to find a manual. (Like I said, old school.) And with this thought, my husband has stumbled upon an ingenious solution for meeting the challenge of the current car market.

He does research and unearths two new manual Jettas in the vicinity: a gray, stripped-down version at the Westchester County dealership where we initially drove the GTI, and a black, more deluxe version at Teddy Volkswagen in the Bronx, which brands itself “The Huggable Dealership” seemingly for no other reason than it sounds good with “Teddy”.

There are no other options, but it doesn’t matter. They are both cheaper than the automatic transmission versions. And, even in this market, they are not in demand.

We take our time. We test drive one, then the other. Discuss their merits for a few days. Eventually, in May, we buy the deluxe version. As an added benefit, as a manual, it gets far better mileage than the Subaru, up to about 45 miles per gallon. If an EV for us is still some ways off, at least there’s that.