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Image credit: Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Carvana made buying a car painless during pandemic hell

It's far better than fighting with dealers in person.
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Carvana used car review
Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

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A few weeks ago, my wife, one-year old daughter and and I made the hellish move from Brooklyn to a cozy Atlanta suburb amid the global pandemic. Our way of life changed in an instant. After being car-free in New York City for the past 10 years, we needed our own wheels to survive the burbs. 

But thanks to COVID-19, it’s not exactly a great time to suffer through test drives and endless in-person negotiations with car dealers (honestly, it’s never a great time for that). Many dealers are now offering home test drives and deliveries, but they often have limited offerings. After talking to a few of them, it was clear that they were only just learning how to handle remote sales. That’s when I remembered Carvana, the online used car retailer that made a name for itself with flashy vehicle vending machines.

Carvana vending machine
Carvana

Long before the coronavirus brought public life to a standstill, Carvana has been offering home deliveries with the aim of  simplifying online car shopping. Like many startups, it brought a glossy Apple-esque approach to the buying experience. Instead of scrolling through badly designed dealer sites, or aggregators like Cars.com, you can use the Carvana app to get 360-degree views of your potential car, view professional photos (not tiny pics taken by someone’s dirty phone) and easily find all of the technical details you’d want to know. 

The company says it puts its cars through extensive 150-point inspections, invests around $1,000 in every vehicle and is very selective about which cars it puts up for sale. It’s hard to confirm if those promises are actually true without serious investigation, but I took the company’s A+ Better Business Bureau rating to be a trustworthy sign. And after dragging my family across the country through an incredibly difficult move, I just wanted my ideal car to show up at my house, without any of the typical dealer hassles.

So when I saw a well-appointed 2017 RAV4 Hybrid pop on Carvana, with a premium Limited trim, I knew I had to move quickly. I spent the past year researching a potential family vehicle, so I had already settled on either a recent RAV4 Hybrid or Prius. After going without a car for a decade, I vowed only to get a hybrid, and Toyota’s entries remain the best in the market from what I can tell. (Unfortunately, EVs are still a bit out of reach for me, though I’m looking closely at grabbing a RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid in a few years.)

Sitting on my bed, staring bleary-eyed at my phone on a stormy Sunday morning, I scrutinized every aspect of the RAV4. The Carfax report was clean, with one owner and no accidents. It had most of the features I wanted (but sadly no Advanced Technology Package for a 360-degree camera and better speakers). And it was within my price range — perhaps a tad more than local dealers, but I didn’t mind paying a bit extra for the convenience of never stepping foot into an office. It definitely felt a bit weird at first to commit to a car without a test drive, but Carvana’s hassle-free 7-day return policy seemed like a better way to truly get to know my new ride.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget
Image credit: Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

The entire purchase process took around 10 minutes. I clicked “Get Started” in the Carvana app, which kicked off a 45 minute timer reservation of the vehicle. I configured a loan with a manageable monthly payment and the largest deposit I could put together, picked a delivery date and time and entered my payment information. 

The only hiccup? I had to rush to get a Georgia license to finalize the purchase, but that was relatively simple since I live near a fairly low-traffic DMV office. I sent along my temporary license photos and insurance information, had a slightly awkward and abrupt call with a Carvana rep and waited for them to approve the deal.

Once I got the green light, I just sat back and let Carvana do the work. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time staring at photos of the RAV4, my most expensive gadget purchase ever (while also devouring YouTube car reviews). It brought me back to the days before next-day package deliveries, when you actually had to sit in anticipation of a new toy coming your way.

A Carvana rep called me the day before my delivery to spell out the whole process and answer any questions. As an obsessive researcher who had spent a ton of time looking into other Carvana customer experiences, I had none. After that, I just kept an eye on the Carvana app for the actual delivery details as if I was waiting for the world’s most expensive Uber.

On the big day, the delivery driver called with some good news: She could actually drop off the car several hours early. So I packed up my daughter from the playground, rushed her back home, and waited while tracking the delivery’s tiny icon on the app. I sent along a selfie to confirm my identity and 20 minutes later the truck driver appeared in a small Carvana-branded truck. It felt like the most exciting thing to happen in my quiet suburb that entire week.

My new (used) RAV4 Hybrid looked immaculate, and I couldn’t find any visible issues while it was sitting on the truck. After dealing with a bit of paperwork and communicating with her corporate office, the driver had me sign some documents, handed me some welcome documents from Carvana (along with a nifty travel mug) and parked the car in my driveway. I successfully bought a car without ever setting foot in a dreary office, or haggling with a car dealer.

I was practically in love with the RAV4 Hybrid the instant I set foot in it. I sold my last car (a well-maintained '91 Accord Wagon) 10 years ago, so I’ve mainly experienced newer car tech by riding around with friends and family. Having a modern car, with the latest safety sensors, tons of cameras and radar-assisted cruise control seemed like a huge leap forward from my last ride. The RAV4 drove like a dream, and my local mechanic gave me a huge thumbs up when I brought it in for a used car inspection.

Once my 7-day trial period was up, Carvana sent me an email saying that my registration and plates were in the works. I ended up receiving them in the mail two weeks later. Now that my family and I are genuinely settling into our new home and our new routines with the RAV4 Hybrid, I’m struck by how easy the whole Carvana process was. It was certainly the simplest part of our cross-country move (which involved researching and buying a house remotely, stress-packing our entire apartment, and missing our first flight to Atlanta). Calling it car-buying heaven may be a bit much, but Carvana was certainly the break I needed from the hell of everything going on in the world today.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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