Car Shopping in Switzerland

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!  Plus, we’ve noted some oddities (to us) about car shopping in Switzerland.

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 in our area to have irregular hours.  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.

Rose train station platform in Fribourg, Switzerland
On a frigid Saturday morning, we’re once again waiting on a train platform to start another day of car shopping.

Another, bigger obstacle for us has been the language barrier.  We’ve called countless sellers all over Switzerland and with only 2 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. 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.

Parts and labor are so costly that 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 one of these mechanics or dealers.  The owner gets a car without mechanical problems and the dealer will fix the car if it’s cost effective, or more likely, will 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 we’ve liked have turned out to be “export only.”

Colorful vineyards while car shopping in Aigle, Switzerland
Brilliant blue skies and snow-capped peaks ease the drudgery of car shopping.

This particular day of car shopping 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 gravel 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 pretty 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.  Highway robbery!  We sighed and trudged back to the train station.

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.

Green Toyota pickup while car shopping in Switzerland
Toyota rigs are so uncommon here (pickups in general) that this lime green beauty immediately catches our eye. Sadly, “export only.”

We were 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 4 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 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, but it was more expensive and the gas mileage was worse.  We thanked him 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.

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