If you had asked me a year ago if we’d ever own a Volkswagen, I would’ve said “Nope, never.” But a year ago, we never imagined we’d be living in Europe and buying a car in Switzerland one day.
It’s not that we don’t like the Volkswagen 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 or SUV never entered my mind when we lived in the US. If our old 4Runner had ever died, we would’ve just bought another used 4Runner. It was the perfect vehicle for our lifestyle.
Unfortunately, we sold it when we moved to Europe, not knowing we wouldn’t be able to replace it. We didn’t realize until we started car shopping in Switzerland that pickups and SUVs are incredibly scarce because they’re expensive, get poor gas mileage, and tend to have high CO2 emissions.
We still don’t regret not shipping our 4Runner to Europe though. We’ll always miss it, but ultimately we decided it was much more practical and cheaper to find a used car that would fit our new lifestyle. If you’re a fellow expat considering buying a car in Switzerland, some of this information will be of interest to you.
Buying a Car in Switzerland: Combining Two Vehicles In One
In the US, we had the luxury of owning two vehicles, each for a totally different purpose.
We had the 4Runner for things like hauling kayaks, off-roading, car-pooling with friends, moving furniture, and extended road trips into wilderness areas.
We love exploring wild places on rugged roads like this in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.
But we also had a Mazda MX5 convertible, commonly referred to as a Miata.
Super fuel-efficient, it was ideal for commuting to work. With its surprising amount of trunk space and comfy bucket seats, we loved taking it for road trips down the Oregon coast and star-gazing through Montana with the top down at night. We even took it to Yellowstone, cruising past black bears, coyotes, and one lone buffalo on the highway that passed just inches from Trav’s face.
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 previous owner.
Thank you, original owner, for paying an obscene amount of money to customize this sweet, sweet Miata, only to trade it in for a Porsche. I’ll always owe you for their desperation in getting a Mazda off their lot.
Adjusting Expectations and 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 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 – whichever 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 never owned a new car, and we’re as thrifty when buying a used car as in everything else we do. Consider this:
Both the 4Runner and Miata were about $8,000 each when we bought them.
I saved up to pay cash for my Miata (paying interest is a waste of money).
We drove both vehicles for about 10 years.
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.
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 back a few years later when we left Switzerland and sold it.
Instead, we really had to adjust our expectations.
From the very beginning of our search, we’ve struggled with the host of unfamiliar cars available, from brands we’ve never even heard of (What the heck is a Skoda??) to models that all look pretty much the same. Even after six months of searching, we still haven’t found a single vehicle that meets our few basic requirements:
Price under 5000 CHF/USD
Seats four with room in the back for camping/kayaking gear
Fuel efficiency of at least 32 mpg, equivalent to 7 l/100 km
Diesel for its lower fuel cost
Of course, we’d like to enjoy driving it too and not find it an absolute eyesore, but beggars can’t be choosers. And yes, among Switzerland’s richy rich elite, these Two Small Potatoes are pretty much beggars.
Learning What’s on the Auto Market
This probably goes without saying, but we honestly had never really thought about it. The European automotive market is very different from that in the US.
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. More of a crossover than an American SUV, they’re 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. It makes sense, because how many people in Europe do off-roading or have the urge to drive over boulders up a dry creek bed to find the perfect camping spot?
Of course, what these crossovers lack, they make up for with better gas mileage (referred to in Switzerland as fuel efficiency), lower running costs in gas and taxes, and fewer environmental pollutants. Most vehicles in Europe are quite 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 buying a car in Switzerland 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. If you remember our post about Car Shopping in Switzerland, you’ll know these cars were very likely for “export only.”
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. Then we started reading reviews and discovered 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 in our price range because of high CO2 emissions and poor fuel consumption. Our goal was at least 32 mpg, or 7 liter/100 km.
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 6000-7000 CHF. Too expensive.
The Ugliest Car May Be the Best Option
That left us with perhaps the most common vehicle on Swiss roads, maybe even all of Western Europe. The VW Golf.
I honestly hadn’t seriously considered a Golf because I couldn’t get past how blasted ugly they are. Like, really bad “Yo Mama” jokes kind of ugly.
I simply can’t look at a VW Golf without imagining the glorious lime green and brown 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire from the movie National Lampoon. Poking fun at station wagons of the ’70s, it set the tone for future generations of car owners. To this day, station wagons don’t sell well in the US. Clearly I’m a product of my culture.
For the millions of VW Golf owners tooling around Europe, I can only assume that either they have the smaller 3-door hatchback model that isn’t as homely as the longer 4-door station wagon, or they sacrificed their vanity for affordability and practicality. Or perhaps they’re just European and see the aesthetics of a vehicle from a European perspective.
Either way, back in December, a friend of a friend in Fribourg raved about her VW Golf. When a car finally 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. It wasn’t just the car’s appearance. As soon as we climbed inside, we were hit by the smell of mildew. It was a cool morning and the inside of the windshield was coated with a thick layer of condensation. Clearly the car wasn’t airtight, hence the mold.
Considering that the car was 14 years old, maybe I should cut it some slack though.
Over a couple of weeks, my resolve wavered – though not my dislike. I simply was tired of car shopping, and we had finally found a 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. Even better, he should’ve paid us to take it off his hands. It’s that ugly.
But the deal is done, and we finally have wheels again!!!
A car needs a mascot.
This crazy chicken was intended to be Touille’s new chew toy.
Instead, Pollo Loco becomes the mascot for our new VW.
Mandatory Auto Insurance
Once the deal was made over the phone, we had to get car insurance before we could even drive it from the dealer’s lot.
We already have mandatory renter’s insurance through Helvetia. Since we love our agent, Benjamin Blanc, we called to tell him we were buying a car and asked how to proceed. He instructed us to email him some basic info about the car, along with our driving history.
The next day, he faxed promissory paperwork to the OCN (Office de la circulation et de la navigation), which is the vehicle registration office. For us, our local office is 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.
It still seems crazy to us that insurance agents here make house calls!
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 and 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.
How much does it cost to register a car in Switzerland?
The cost of car registration differs by canton, but our total was 130 CHF. Expect to pay anywhere from 50-150 francs. This includes the following:
50 CHF for new license plates, which are mandatory when a car is sold. This is different from the US where you can usually keep and use the old plates unless the car has out-of-state plates.
40 CHF for the actual registration fee.
40 CHF for the mandatory automobile vignette, or sticker, that all drivers using Swiss roads are required to buy and put on their windshield. It’s something you’ll have to buy every year.
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!
Travis holds the keys to our shiny, new-to-us, used car – a 2002 Volkswagen Golf TDI Comfort4Motion.
It’s a 6-shift manual diesel, so it offers great gas mileage (36.5 mpg or 6.4 l/100 km), but reverse and 1st gear are in the same position, which will take some adjustment.
Mandatory Vehicle Inspection, or “MFK”
Vehicles in Switzerland are subject to a regular inspection, which is referred to in German as the MFK (Motorfahrzeugkontrollen) or in French as the expertise.
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 two 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.
When you’re buying a car, make sure to ask when the MFK was last done. It’s typical for it to be paid by seller or for it to be current at the time of sale.
Annual Passenger Vehicle Tax
A final additional fee that’s required is Switzerland’s annual tax on passenger cars.
This is another new tax for us, one that we didn’t have in the US. 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 “and CO2 emissions of 173 grams per kilometer driven.
Expat Tip: A car with an energy class of A-C is more environmentally friendly and will require a cheaper annual tax.
Many of the newer SUVs here have much better energy ratings, but most are fewer than five years old and have a significantly higher 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 when we had to haul them home via public transit.
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?! In the end, buying a car in Switzerland was absolutely worth it.
Hallelujah! These Two Small Potatoes finally have wheels again!
Useful Sites for Buying a Car in Switzerland
Two sites that’re useful for car shopping online are AutoScout24 and Anibis (FR, DE, IT)
If you happen to be in the Fribourg area, this is the official contact info for Benjamin Blanc, our Helvetia insurance agent. We highly recommend him, and he speaks English.