If you had asked me a year ago if we’d ever own a Volkswagen, I would’ve said “Nope, never.“ It’s not that I don’t like the brand. In fact, I tend to think that VW makes solid, quality cars that last for years. But the thought of having a non-Toyota that was also a non-truck just never entered my mind. Hypothetically, if our old 4Runner had ever died, we would’ve just bought another old used 4Runner. Unfortunately, we knew before we ever started car shopping in Switzerland that our beloved Toyota 4Runner would not be economical or practical in Europe. One reason is that they’re incredibly scarce, and for good reason. Like most SUVs, they’re large, get poor gas mileage, and tend to have high CO2 emissions.
Combining Two Vehicles In One
In the States, we had the luxury of owning two vehicles, each for a totally different purpose. We had the 4Runner for things like hauling kayaks, car pooling with friends, and moving furniture. But we also had a Mazda Miata MX5 that was super fuel-efficient. It was perfect for commuting to work, and we loved to take it for road trips down the Oregon coast or to star-gaze with the top down at night. It was just a crazy fun car to drive! I adored everything about it, from the way the engine purred like a contented cat to the shiny cherry red exterior and custom chrome, courtesy of the original owner.
Adjusting Expectations & Priorities
It really never occurred to us that buying a car in Switzerland wouldn’t be fun. I mean, car shopping can be a bit of a chore, but it should be an exciting thing to buy a new car, even if it’s a used one. A car is functional and serves a purpose, but it’s still a luxury to be able to own one. It should be fun to buy – and even more, drive – whatever car you decide to buy.
And before you go thinking that’s only for rich people who can afford shiny red convertibles, that’s a bunch of malarkey. We’ve still never owned a new car and we’re as thrifty when buying a car as in everything else we do. Both the 4Runner and Miata were about $8,000 when we bought them, I saved up to pay cash for my Miata (who wants to pay interest?), we drove both for about 10 years, and we got about $10,000 back when we sold them to move to Europe. It’s entirely possible to have your dream car, even on a budget!
So we just expected we would do the same when we bought a car in Switzerland – buy a quality used car we liked, pay cash up front, take good care of it, and get most of our money a few years later when we left Switzerland. Instead, we really had to adjust our expectations.
We’ve struggled with the host of unfamiliar cars available – brands we’ve never even heard of (Skoda?) and models across brands that all look pretty much identical. After six months of searching, we still haven’t found a single vehicle that offers our few basic requirements and still fits within our price range. First World problems, to be sure.
Learning What’s on the Auto Market
After checking out a few new and used car dealerships and reviewing tons of used car listings on websites like Autoscout.ch and Anibis.ch, we realized it was unlikely we would get an SUV, or at least our definition of an SUV. What they call an SUV here is more akin to the newer station wagons back home with many resembling the Subaru Outback, which seems like more of a crossover than an SUV. These crossovers are smaller, lighter, tend to have AWD rather than true 4WD, and have poor clearance indicative of a car chassis, limiting their off-road ability to class 3 or 4 roads.
Of course, what they lack, they make up for with better gas mileage (referred to here as fuel efficiency), lower running costs in gas and taxes, and fewer environmental pollutants. Most vehicles in Europe are incredibly small with a whole fleet of funny little superminis buzzing along the highways. The vast majority are also hatchback (very few sedans) and are somber, modest colors: black, grey/silver, or white. Sorry, but it makes car shopping total snoozeville!
Setting A Budget – Pay Cash If You Can!
Since we wanted to avoid paying interest, we set a budge of 5000 chf (about the same in USD) and decided to pay cash. That quickly ruled out any of the newer crossovers with insanely good fuel consumption and low taxes. Several of my favorites – the Mini Countryman, Nissan Quasquai, and VW Tiguan – quickly fell by the wayside since the only ones that cost less than $10k had been totaled in accidents.
Next, we looked into either a Nissan X-Trail or a Land Rover Freelander. We saw tons of them for sale for less than 2500 chf, but Trav vetoed after reading that both are notorious for a host of serious mechanical issues. We also quickly ruled out every other BMW, Subaru, Ford, Chevy, Mercedes, and Jeep because of poor fuel consumption (our goal was at least 32 mpg, or 7 l/100 km) and high CO2 emissions.
After several test drives, our final two contenders were the Toyota Rav4 and the Honda CR-V, with the CR-V edging out the Rav4 in fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Sadly, both consistently boasted price tags hovering between 6-7000 chf.
The Ugliest Car May Be the Best Option
That left us with perhaps the most common vehicle on Swiss roads – the VW Golf.
I honestly hadn’t seriously considered it because I could not get past how blasted ugly they are. Like, really bad “Yo Mama” jokes kind of ugly.
But back in December, a friend of a friend raved about her VW Golf.
When one popped up online that met our basic criteria, we took the train to the nearby town of Wallenried to test drive it. Travis liked it immediately and likely would have bought it that day if I’d been on board.
Over a couple of weeks, my resolve wavered – though not my dislike. I simply was tired of car shopping and we had found a perfectly functional car that would suit our needs.
Travis called up the seller, an auto body shop, and offered him 4300 chf from his asking price of 5200. The seller accepted without hesitation.
I think we paid 2000 too much. It’s that ugly! But the deal is done; we finally have wheels again.
Mandatory Auto Insurance
Once the deal was made over the phone, we had to get car insurance before we could drive it from the dealer’s. We already have mandatory renter’s insurance through Helvetia and love our agent, Benjamin Blanc. We called to tell him we were buying a car and emailed him some basic info about it and our driving history.
The next day, he faxed promissory paperwork to the OCN – Office de la circulation et de la navigation – (vehicle registration office) in Fribourg. The paperwork was confirmation from Helvetia that they would be insuring the car so we could complete the registration process. Without proof of insurance, you can’t register a car in Switzerland.
We also made an appointment to meet with Benjamin at our house the following week to review our options for coverage. When we met with him, we’d officially sign a vehicle insurance policy for the VW. We won’t know the exact cost until we meet with him and decide on coverage, but his estimate was about 500 chf per year.
Licensing & Registration
The same day that Benjamin faxed our paperwork, the seller met Travis at the OCN so Travis could register the VW in his name. The seller had to submit the Permis de circulation (also referred to as “the grey card” and equivalent to the car’s title) to the OCN. The OCN in turn issued a Permis de circulation to Travis in his name.
Cost to register differs by canton, but our total was 130 chf. This included new license plates for 50 chf (mandatory when a car is sold, unlike in Oregon where you can usually keep and use the old plates unless the car has out-of-state plates), the annual 40 chf highway tax that’s mandatory (and doesn’t exist in the US), and 40 chf for the registration fee. Just to note, the 40 chf for the highway tax is the annual driving vignette, or sticker, that all drivers using Swiss roads are required to purchase.
After Trav paid the fees at the OCN, he stopped at the bank to withdraw 4300 chf in cash, caught a train to Wallenried, forked over the cash, and picked up our new car. He pulled into our driveway with our new VW just after dark!
Mandatory Vehicle Inspection, or “MFK”
Vehicles in Switzeralnd are subject to a regular inspection, which is referred to as the MFK (Motorfahrzeugkontrollen) in German or expertise in French. Typically, the MFK is required after a car’s first 4 years on the road, then 3 years later, then every 2 years. In addition to this regular inspection, which is quite thorough, an anti-pollution test is required every two years for all diesel rigs and vehicles without catalytic converters.
In the future, we’ll have these 2 inspections done at the same time and place. For now, we’re set! The seller had our VW inspected shortly before we bought it, so we won’t have to worry about the next inspection until November of 2016.
Annual Passenger Vehicle Tax
A final additional fee we’ll have to pay is Switzerland’s annual tax on passenger cars. This is another new tax for us, one that we don’t have back home. Whether to penalize drivers who have more pollutive vehicles or to reward those with more efficient cars, the tax is levied annually and is based on a vehicle’s energy class and CO2 emissions.
Our VW Golf has an energy class of E (A-C is preferable and cheaper) and CO2 emissions of 173 grams per kilometer driven. Many of the newer SUVs here have much better energy ratings, but most are fewer than 5 years old and fall within a much higher range of purchase price.
Celebrating With the New Wheels!
So what did we do during our first day with the car? We didn’t head off to parts unknown or do anything touristy – we went shopping. If that doesn’t sound exciting, you might be taking your car for granted!
We spent hours at Manor perusing the discounted Christmas decorations and reveling in the realization that if we wanted to, we could buy anything in the store and easily transport it home. We didn’t spend much, but we finally bought things like plants, ceramic pots, and candles, things that were too heavy or fragile to bother with before.
Our second and only other stop was to Qualipet, our favorite pet store in Fribourg. The employees, as usual, smothered Touille with attention, and we stocked up on bulk dog and cat food, litter, and some new toys. Who wants to haul 30 lb bags of cat litter home on the train?!
Hallelujah! These Two Small Potatoes finally have wheels again!
- Two sites that’re useful for car shopping online in Switzerland are AutoScout24 and Anibis (FR, DE, IT)
- Official contact info for Benjamin Blanc with Helvetia, insurance provider for Fribourg area. We highly recommend him, and he speaks English!
- Official website for the Fribourg OCN (FR, DE)
- Info about the 40 chf annual driving/road vignette (FR, DE, IT, EN)
- Fee list from the Fribourg OCN with annual passenger vehicle tariffs based on vehicle pollutants (FR, DE)