What’s it like buying from Carvana as the company crumbles?

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Update by Tom Suddard to the Volkswagen Golf GTI project car
Mar 1, 2023 | Volkswagen, VW, GTI, Golf, Carvana, Mk7 GTI

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Buying a car used to be easy: You’d hand over cash, then someone would give you keys and title.

But buying our newest project car–a 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI destined for some track fun–wasn’t so simple.

You see, we got it from Carvana.

 

Why a Mk7 Volkswagen GTI?

We knew we wanted to play with a Mk7 Golf GTI, but why not an earlier Mk6 or a current Mk8?

Simple: We think this generation hits the sweet spot.

The newest Mk6 Golf GTI is now a decade old, and our own past ownership experience proved that relying on a 10-year-old Volkswagen as a daily driver means you’ll be walking more often than you’d like.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Mk8 GTI was just introduced for the 2022 model year. Our own testing showed that it’s a better, faster car in stock form, but it’s too new to be in our price range.

 

Plus, we’re not sure we want to void the warranty on a brand-new car.

The Mk7 was the first Golf GTI to be built on Volkswagen’s MQB chassis, an $8 billion project to move a ton of different cars of all shapes and sizes to a single architecture. The details aren’t important, but the results are: A Mk7 GTI is larger than the Mk6 but also noticeably lighter. Hooray for modern engineering, right?

You’ll see some GTIs referred to as the Mk7.5s, referring to the mid-cycle refresh for the 2018 model year. These later cars have a more modern nose, better headlights and a nicer infotainment system but are otherwise identical.

A year later, Volkswagen added a seventh gear to the DSG for the 2019 model year, which improved fuel economy but didn’t meaningfully affect lap times.

Throughout the Mk7’s production run, VW was constantly making minor tweaks and improvements, changing available equipment and rearranging trim levels. Generally speaking, the later cars are better, heavier and more expensive.

One option we should discuss is the Performance Pack. At first we assumed that means some fancy pinstripes and maybe a slightly more aggressive ECU tune, but the truth is that it adds some seriously desirable hardware for the track.

Performance Pack cars have 10 extra horsepower (bumping the total to 220) thanks to a revised ECU tune (no hard parts are changed), but they also get an electronically controlled clutch-type limited-slip differential and much larger brakes front and rear (the same parts used on the Golf R).

This package doesn’t seem to add much resale value, as most dealers don’t even know to advertise it, but it’s a game changer if you’re planning on track days like we were.

What about the age-old question: Two or four doors?

Fortunately, Volkswagen made this choice for us starting in 2017, when the GTI became sedan-only in the USA. In theory there are a few 2017 Coupes in the wild, but we’ve never seen one in person.

Honestly, we wanted four doors anyway: Coupes make carrying passengers a pain, their doors are tough to open in tight parking lots, and the weight penalty is exceedingly small: Volkswagen says a sedan weighs just 48 pounds more than an equivalent coupe.

We’re not Volkswagen experts, so if you want to take a deeper dive into the minutiae of Mk7 GTIs, we highly recommend this video buyer’s guide from our friends at FCP Euro:


Why’d We Choose This Car?

After poking and prodding the market for a few months, we zeroed in on the car we wanted: a 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI Sport.

This one-year-only trim had everything we wanted: the Performance Pack, better headlights, a plaid cloth interior, keyless entry and some interesting 18x7.5-inch wheels.

Most importantly, it didn’t have anything we didn’t want: no sunroof, no leather, no radar cruise control, and nothing else to add weight to our car.

It’s easy to find a loaded GTI, but we don’t fit that well in sunroof cars with a helmet on and we didn’t want the slippery leather seats of higher trims. The 2017 Sport was basically a cheat code to get exactly what we wanted.

But that left one more choice: Manual or automatic?

And if you just threw your phone in disgust, hear us out: Mk7 GTIs didn’t come with traditional automatics, but rather with VW’s exceptional DSG twin-clutch transmission.

[Is the dual-clutch the ultimate transmission? | Column]

DSG cars are faster on track yet drive like normal automatics on the street. Oh, and did we mention they can supposedly hold more than 500 horsepower without any modifications?

We were nearly sold on the DSG anyway, but there’s another reason to choose the two-pedal setup: Manual-transmission GTIs received weak clutches. They’re fine at stock power levels, but we kept hearing from experts that as soon as you add any power, you need to plan on replacing the clutch.

Rather than instantly replace the clutch in our nearly new car, we decided to go with the DSG. What’s the downside? Weight and fuel economy. Volkswagen says this decision adds 44 pounds and kills 2 highway mpg, putting the curb weight of our ideal GTI at 3126 pounds with a combined fuel economy of 27 mpg.

We had our ideal car on paper, so now we needed to find it. We started in familiar territory–Facebook and forums–but quickly realized that these cars are still too new to be sold outside dealers in significant numbers. The few private-sale examples we did find were already modified, which sort of defeats the purpose of a project car.

So we started shopping cars for sale at traditional dealers, filtering for only the 2017 GTI Sport and treating it like a commodity.

We found cars as cheap at $20,000 all the way to nearly $30,000, but most were in the $22,000-$26,000 range.

At the low end, we were finding cars with trashed interiors, ownership history in the rust belt and 80,000 miles. At the high end, we found low-mileage cars from rust-free, no-front-plate states. (We hate extra holes in the front bumper.)

After some soul searching, we realized the $4000 difference in price wasn’t enough to offset the difference in condition and decided to buy the nicest car we could find.

And, much to our surprise, that car showed up at Carvana.

The company has been all over the news–even before its stock crashed­–but other staffers had good experiences. The pitch was appealing, too: Click a few buttons and then our perfect GTI would be delivered to our door.

Even better, Carvana promised this car was certified, meaning it would be ready to go right out of the box. They even offered a 100-day warranty for free.

 

The Carvana Buying Experience

Spoiler alert: We did not have a painless, stress-free experience buying our car.

In fact, buying this VW from Carvana was in many ways worse than buying from a traditional dealer. Why? We think there are two reasons: We bought this VW as a company rather than as an individual, and we didn’t finance it. Those two decisions seem to have thrown a wrench clean through the Carvana model and very nearly meant we couldn’t even buy the car.

The first sign was right after we clicked “Purchase” on the website. That started a 45-minute countdown timer while we checked a few boxes and arranged payment, so we asked Carvana what the next step was to have the car titled in our company’s name.

By the time we’d overcome a glitching website and convinced the chat agent to change our name manually, the GTI was no longer available.

Yes: As our timer ran out, somebody else started buying our GTI. The Carvana agent apologized for the missed opportunity and politely told us to go buy something else.

Fortunately, that other person had issues, too, so we clicked the button again and restarted the timer. And if you’re currently fuming because somebody bought a GTI right out from under you while you were getting your paperwork in order, sorry!

This time we made it to a longer countdown asking for payment verification. Carvana wouldn’t let us just send them money; instead, it asked us to link an account and prove it had money, which the company would then remove upon delivery.

Carvana offered a third-party linking service or the opportunity for a three-way call with Carvana and our bank. Since the call idea sounded like actual torture, we attempted to link the account, then gave up after Carvana’s website kept reverting to “Link your account” after confirming the account was linked.

Finally, we put a different bank account into the online portal, hoping the digital link would work better. The whole time, the countdown timer kept running, and we knew we were up against the clock.

Then, surprise, the account change prompted Carvana to decide it now wanted pre-payment, preferably in the form of a cashier’s check. It offered wire transfers as an option, too, but noted that would delay delivery for a few days while things were processed.

We went to the bank, got a cashier’s check and uploaded a clear photo of the front and back so Carvana could process the payment. Success!

But the timer kept counting down: Carvana wanted proof of insurance to be uploaded before it would complete the sale. There was just one problem: We’d wasted so much time trying to give them money that a hurricane was now on its way to Florida.

No insurance company would issue a new policy–not even Carvana’s in-house insurance partnership. We relayed that info to Carvana, and it basically shrugged and said, “Tough.”

Upload our insurance card in the next 24 hours, it said, or it would cancel the sale.

And yes, we asked if a copy of our current policy, which automatically covers new purchases for a few weeks, would be sufficient. Carvana was absolute: Either we could upload a photo of an ID card showing our new VW’s VIN, or we could leave.

Finally, after a few hours of online chats (calls to Carvana seem to only go to an infinite phone tree), we received a phone call from a human being. After relaying our situation, the human said there was only one option: a one-time “courtesy 72-hour hold” that would pause the sale.

They said we shouldn’t ask for it to be issued now, though, but rather wait until a few minutes before our 24-hour timer ran out so we could run the clock out as far as possible. If everything went according to plan and the storm stayed on track, we’d have a 5-hour window where our insurance agent could write a policy while the timer was still counting down.

Maybe managing the clock like this would be acceptable to a football coach, but we found it to be a bafflingly poor way to treat a customer who’d already given you a cashier’s check for $26,590 plus taxes and registration fees and signed all the paperwork to buy your car.

Fortunately, the hurricane stayed on track and we were able to get insurance a few hours before the deadline. Finally, we were ready to get the car.

Oh, and did we mention Carvana won’t deliver your car unless you finance it? Instead, we were asked to drive an hour to the Carvana vending machine.

And our first appointment was canceled during the 72-hour hold, pushing back our delivery to the following week.

The day of the appointment, Carvana emailed and texted us an itemized list of what we’d need to bring for pickup, along with some generic corporate lines about how it’s not a traditional dealership but rather a better way to buy a car completely online.

That itemized list was as follows:

 

Pickup Day

More than a week after we’d clicked “Purchase,” we were walking up to Carvana’s famous vending machine to receive our Volkswagen.

A paper sign on the door apologized for the a/c being broken, but after being buzzed into the lobby, we were greeted by a helpful “advocate” who would handle our delivery.

We’ll get the worst news over with early: We didn’t get our car out of the vending machine. In fact, Carvana told us the machine was broken and instead pulled the VW around from the back lot.

The temporary license plate, a result of the paperwork we’d signed online, was already screwed into the rear bumper. Finally, we were picking up our car.

Our advocate handed us the keys and told us to look over the car, take it for a test drive or anything else we’d like, and then just walk back inside to complete the sale.

Honestly, this part of the experience was perfect: We spent nearly an hour looking over the car. We went on a test drive to confirm the limited-slip was present (it was), then parked our GTI back in the Carvana lot.

And, well, the car wouldn’t restart.

Despite our advocate’s assurance that “You just need to hold the key against the steering column,” we knew the GTI had two key fobs with dead batteries. Some of the trim around the column was sitting on the passenger floor, which we chalked up to an inexperienced lot assistant looking for a physical keyhole.

We snapped it back into place and walked inside with a simple ask: Replace the key fob batteries and prove the car wasn’t broken, and we’d take it home.

Okay, no problem.” We have no idea why Carvana didn’t fix the keys before trying to deliver the car, but 5 minutes later the advocate returned with two keys that now worked as intended.

Sold!

Not so fast, though: The advocate whipped out a tablet and started checking boxes, looked at our license and insurance to make sure we were legal to drive, then said, “Okay, we’re all set. You need to digitally sign the forms we just emailed to you and hand me the cashier’s check for the downpayment.”

Uh, we uploaded the check a week ago and we aren't financing. Carvana says this was pre-paid.”

Oh, yeah, that’s right. But we still need to keep the actual check.”

If only they’d sent an itemized list of what to bring for pickup.

We went and had lunch while the check was run out to us–an hourlong trek to deliver the cashier’s check Carvana said had already been deposited. After signing the documents on our phone and handing the check to Carvana, we finally hit the road in our new Volkswagen.

An hour later, we pulled into the driveway, took our phone off driving mode, and realized we’d missed a half-dozen calls and a text message from our advocate begging us to sign the forms online.

After explaining that we’d already signed them and even offering to forward the Carvana email delivering our completed copies, Carvana decided it was easiest for us to just sign all the purchase forms again, so we did. Finally, mercifully, our experience buying a car from Carvana was over.

But was it all worth it? We’ll find out in the next installment when we give this GTI our own inspection.   

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Comments
APEowner
APEowner GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
11/23/22 10:32 a.m.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?

ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter)
ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter) Dork
11/23/22 10:45 a.m.

My one encounter with Carvana was when they bought my six year old Sienna minivan for almost $30k cash during the pandemic.  They showed up with a rollback, I signed one form, they handed me a check and drove off with my van.  It felt a little too good to be true.  Apparently it was.

spedracer
spedracer New Reader
11/23/22 10:45 a.m.

I could forgive everything else, but I'd be pissed about not getting the car out of the vending machine.

kb58
kb58 UltraDork
11/23/22 10:53 a.m.

A recent headline was how, in roughly a year, their stock price has dropped 97% from peak. Something like $350 to around $6-7. Their flaw is having a business plan of paying more for used cars than everyone else, while using investor money to keep the doors open. With used car prices dropping, they've found themselves in a Business Garbage Compactor.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
11/23/22 10:57 a.m.

In reply to spedracer :

I know, right? I'm not saying it'd be a deal breaker for me, but it feels pretty close.

buzzboy
buzzboy SuperDork
11/23/22 11:09 a.m.

An acquaintance is on his 3rd temp tag from 3rd different state waiting on his title. That would scare me away pretty quick.

Noddaz
Noddaz GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
11/23/22 11:09 a.m.

Well now.  So much for progress.

Toyman!
Toyman! GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/23/22 11:16 a.m.

Well, that was exactly the opposite of my experience with them. I found them to be pretty flawless when I bought the Touareg a month ago. 

 

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
11/23/22 11:23 a.m.

In reply to Toyman! :

I wonder how much of that comes down to training and experience. When I worked at a large used car dealership chain, the training process was very much "here's how to do everything" and then you kind of got thrown to the wolves.

I know that sort of learning process can work for some people, but it was definitely a step outside of my comfort zone.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
11/23/22 11:24 a.m.
spedracer said:

I could forgive everything else, but I'd be pissed about not getting the car out of the vending machine.

I'm glad I'm not alone: I literally turned to my wife when we were in the parking lot and said "I'd be okay with the past week of being jerked around if they'd at least showed me the vending machine."

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