Car Shopping in Switzerland

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It’s been six months almost to the day we arrived in Europe and we still haven’t bought a car. As it turns out, shopping for a car if we had a car would be a lot easier. Still, we’ve learned a lot in the process and we’re confident we’ll find one soon. In the meantime, we’ve noted some big differences between car shopping in Switzerland and the US.

Waiting on a train platform for a day of car shopping in Switzerland
On an icy Saturday morning, we’re again waiting on a train platform to start another day of car shopping in Switzerland.

How is car shopping in Switzerland different than the US?

First, we’ve seen very few cars listed for sale by private party.

The vast majority are listed for sale by small mechanic shops or dealers. Listings typically include a “business phone,” which is often a cell phone, and it’s common for many of the smaller dealers to have shortened, irregular hours.  

Dealers have limited hours of operation.

If you don’t first call to schedule an appointment, you’ll run the risk of stopping at the business during “normal business hours” and nobody will be there. This has happened to us more than once.

Don’t assume everyone speaks English.

One of the biggest obstacles for us has been the language barrier. If you live in Zurich, Geneva, or one of the largest cities, this won’t be such an issue. But we live in a small village outside a small town.

Most of the dealers we’ve visited are in neighboring villages. We’ve called countless sellers all over Switzerland and with only two exceptions, none of them spoke English. We’ve had friends call on a couple of cars for us, but it’s an imposition we’ve tried to avoid.

The most common used car for sale is for “export only.”

Parts and labor are so costly that buying a used car in Switzerland often isn’t even feasible.

If a car develops something even as minor as clutch problems, it’s not uncommon for the owner to just trade in the car to a mechanic or small dealer. The owner gets a car without mechanical problems and the dealer will fix the car if it’s cost effective and re-sell it.

More likely, they’ll export it for more than the price they could get for fixing and reselling it in Switzerland. The turnover rate on cars here is high with an impressive number of used cars available on the market. Unfortunately, the vast majority are for “export only.”

We’ve followed up on so many cars, we finally realized we just needed to ask straightaway if the car was for export. Without understanding anything beyond that, most sellers would say “Oui, export,” and that was the end of that car for us.

Depending on whether you live in the German or French-speaking part of Switzerland, you’ll want to remember this question:

German: Ist das Auto nur für den Export?
French: Est la voiture pour l'exportation uniquement?
Alps in village of Aigle while car shopping in Switzerland
Brilliant blue skies and snow-capped peaks ease the drudgery of car shopping in Aigle, Switzerland.

What’s a day for us car shopping here look like?

This particular day of car shopping in Aigle turned out to be no exception. Our first stop was the town of Romont to see a Honda CR-V. We hadn’t been able to reach the seller despite multiple phone calls, but since it was on our way to see several other cars, we decided to wing it.

After a 30 minute walk from the train station in Romont, we arrived at a small gas station sandwiched between a large auto body shop and a used car lot. Our beautiful, shiny CR-V was parked right on the corner in all – its – glory.  

  • Roof racks.
  • Beefy running boards.
  • 4WD.  
  • Miles of clearance.
  • Rugged winter tires.  

For a non-Toyota, it was pret-ty swank.

Alas, it was not to be!  

With nobody on site, we called the seller yet again. No answer.

The sticker price in the window was 8400 CHF – a ridiculous price.  The ad we’d found for it online had it listed at 6900 CHF, which was still too high.

Which leads us to yet another difference: even used cars in Switzerland are EXPENSIVE!

Highway robbery! We sighed and trudged back to the train station to continue on to Aigle to see a second vehicle for sale.

By the time we got back to the Romont train station, I couldn’t feel my toes. We warmed up on the train ride to Lausanne, then opted not to visit a dealer there after Trav called and confirmed the CR-V we wanted to see there was for export only.

Instead, we caught a connecting train to backtrack around Lac Léman and continued south to Aigle, a tiny village sandwiched between massive white-capped mountain ranges. Another 30 minute walk and we arrived at yet another huge used car lot.

One of the biggest differences about car shopping in Switzerland is the general lack of pickup trucks and “American” SUVs.

Pickup trucks are so uncommon that this lime green beauty immediately catches our eye while car shopping in Switzerland.

Sadly, it’s “export only.”

We were actually interested in two Toyota Rav4s.

After slipping and sliding along the icy pavement to scope them out, we were excited that both looked perfect! Diesel, gas mileage under 7 l/100 km, 4WD, ample space for four with room in back for outdoor adventure gear, good clearance, and both for just over 5000 CHF.

Again, our hopes were shot as soon as the owner came over and told us both were for export because they needed a new clutch, which he estimated would run about 2000 chf for the parts and labor. For a clutch! What insanity is this?!

He said he planned to export both to Africa, where he could get an estimated 5000 CHF apiece for them.

*sigh*

He showed us an older, more bare-bones and battered petrol (gas) Rav4, which we test drove. It was more expensive and the gas mileage was worse. Thanking him, we left empty-handed and walked back to the train station in Aigle.

After 3 hours and multiple train transfers, extended waits on chilly platforms, a bus ride, and a short walk, we finally arrived home, still sans vehicle.

Wondering if we’re ever successful car shopping in Switzerland?

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