TrueCar Review: A Detailed Look at How It Works, Pros and Cons

By J.R. Duren
HighYa Staff
Updated on: Jun 7, 2019

TrueCar is a free online pricing tool for new and used cards that provides a “TrueCar Price Quote” based on local car sales data. In theory, you can use this price quote to take to the dealership and get the car for that price.

The website is unique in that it has relationships with around 25 percent of dealerships around the country, such that they can connect you with local car dealerships within minutes as you formulate a quote for the car you want to buy. This can be both good and bad, as we’ll explain later.

The company is based in Santa Monica, CA, and has been around since 2005. Over the past few years, the company’s services have become more popular and more controversial, a trend that’s resulted in opinions from major publications and average consumers.

In this review, we’ll highlight the good and bad of this service by talking about how it works, what customers and publications have said about it, compare it to other services similar to it and then end with a conclusion in which we weight the pros and cons of the service.

How Does TrueCar Work

The TrueCar service focuses on one thing: providing you a price for a car of your specific choice. What this means is that they’ll give you the ability to choose the exact kind of car you want—make, model, trim, etc.—and then they run that specific car through their national sale-price database as well as local sale prices to come up with a price they believe reflects the true value of the car.

In order to get this quote, however, you’ll need to provide them with a phone number. The only way you can set up an account and get a quote for the specific car you want is to enter a verification number that TrueCar texts to your phone. If you don’t provide them with the right number, you can’t set up an account.

This is a key factor behind one of the main drawbacks of the service, which is something we’ll talk about in the customer reviews section.

TrueCar quoteImage credit:

The quote includes estimates for monthly payments and such but, more importantly, gives you their estimate for what you should pay based on purchases of the same vehicle or similar vehicles in the area. They also offer a certainty rating for their price: the higher the rating, the surer they are your price is fair.

What’s also important to note is that TrueCar provides a “Factory Invoice” price, which is the dollar amount the dealership paid for the car after all the fees the manufacturer charged them.

When you compare the TrueCar price to the Factory Invoice price, you get a sense of how close your price is to what the dealership actually paid.

Now, according to the TrueCar website, the company uses car-purchase data from companies who amass car-purchase data from dealerships across the country. Their TrueCar price also includes the following, per TrueCar’s FAQ:

  • The configuration of the car you want
  • Customer/dealer incentives
  • Financing/loan data
  • Vehicle registration/insurance data

“We have 99.1% confidence that our projected Average Paid Price per new car sale in a given week is within $20 of the average price of all nationwide sales transactions during that week,” their site reads.

They follow that quote up with a caveat that cars that aren’t as popular and don’t have as much sales information will have more deviations in how much you should pay for the car.

Basically, TrueCar does a bunch of behind the scenes calculations to come up with a price they believe is a fair price to pay for the car. You then take this quote to a dealership and, in theory, the dealer will say, “You’ve got a deal.”

You can also use TrueCar to set-up a trade-in or a car purchase for a vehicle you own. You’ll tell the website the type of car you have, the condition it’s in and, if applicable, how much you owe on your auto loan or how much time is left on your lease.

At that point, they’ll give you a list of dealerships who offer to buy your car, along with a price range for what they could pay. The fine print notes, however, that these prices are guaranteed.

» See Also: Comparison of 6 Popular Used Car Websites: A Comprehensive Guide

How TrueCar Makes Money

Ivan Chong, founder of Lazy Finances, said that TrueCar makes their money by charging dealerships “around $400” a month to get leads from the TrueCar website. Chong provided us with a link to TrueCar’s SEC filings, in which the company explains exactly how they make money.

Based on the data we looked at, it seems that TrueCar makes around $333 for every car sold by a TrueCar dealership partner via a TrueCar quote.

TrueCar’s Fine Print: Three Important Limitations

Our research indicates that using a TrueCar quote isn’t quite as simple as walking into a dealership with your quote and leaving an hour later with your car.

TrueCar Sends Your Information to Car Dealerships

TrueCar’s FAQ page says that they send the information you input for your quote to multiple dealerships and, as we’ll show in a few minutes, that exchange of information could result in an onslaught of calls, texts and emails for local car dealerships.

TrueCar Price Quotes Don’t Guarantee a Sale Price

Your TrueCar quote is not a guaranteed sale price. One of the interesting sections of their FAQ page reveals that dealerships aren’t bound to the quote you bring in.

“Dealers generally will do their best to match the vehicle you have configured on TrueCar, but many times they will not have an exact match for the car you are looking to purchase,” the page reads. “This is not the dealer's fault, but rather a challenge with the way cars and trucks are manufactured and marketed.”

In other words, the quote you got for the exact car you want may not be valid because the dealership you go to may not have the car you want, even if TrueCar connected you with that dealer. What happens in those situations?

According to the FAQ page we mentioned above, you may have to buy a different car at a different price because a dealer isn’t guaranteed to have the exact car you want.

“Ultimately this can affect your expectations when contacting a dealer, so it may be helpful to keep an open mind about what the dealer may be offering as an alternative,” the site says.

Furthermore, the price applies only to vehicles that are in stock at a dealership. If they don’t have the car you want, there’s a good chance they aren’t going to honor your TrueCar price if you try to use it for a car that’s different from what’s in your quote.

TrueCar Focuses on Dealer Relationships

Over the past few years, TrueCar has made a well-publicized move away from consumers and toward car dealerships. Their website notes that car dealerships pay fees to be connected with TrueCar users.

“We ordinarily receive fees from our Certified Dealers in connection with the services. In some instances, we also receive fees from automobile manufacturers and/or third-party service providers,” TrueCar’s FAQ page says.

An article from Forbes elaborates on TrueCar’s move away from focusing on the customer and toward focusing on the dealerships.

“TrueCar made a name for itself by promising to get car buyers the best possible price, which made it an extremely attractive service. Now that the company is more focused on the dealer’s bottom line, it offers significantly less value to consumers,” contributor David Trainer wrote.

With this in mind, we think the research indicates that there’s a chance TrueCar may be more interested in helping the dealers with your business rather than giving you a realistic chance of buying a car for the price TrueCar says you should pay.

We believe this conclusion is warranted not only because of what TrueCar’s own rules say—a dealership isn’t bound to your quote—but also because of what Tru Car customers say.

Customer Reviews of TrueCar

TrueCar gets an average rating of around three stars on Trustpilot. At the time of publishing, the company received 1,191 reviews on the site.

Of the 20 most recent reviews, three were five stars, one was four stars and the rest were one-star reviews. The five-star reviews seemed to focus on the dealership who sold them the car and not TrueCar’s quote.

The one-star reviews, on the other hand, complained about some common themes:

  • Near instant calls from dealerships once you input your information
  • Users found better deals on their own
  • Dealerships wouldn’t honor the quote

One review by the name of “N. OB” said, they received “no fewer than 10 phone calls, 15 texts and 10 emails within 30 minutes of setting up his or her account. Furthermore, when the customer called TrueCar to delete their account, the company told him or her, “they don’t currently have a way to delete accounts.”

Now, we made our own effort to reach out to people who actually used the service and found someone whose positive experience tempered the bad recent feedback on Trustpilot.

Mark Aselstine, founder of wine website Uncorked Ventures, told us he bought a car through TrueCar in 2016. He said the process was simple but noted something interesting. The dealer from which he ended up buying his car told him that the TrueCar Price Quote he received was, in reality, the price that the dealership told TrueCar was the cheapest they could sell it for.

In other words, in this case, it seems that TrueCar’s Price Quote wasn’t based on all the data their site claims but, rather, the lowest price a local dealership could offer.

“Overall, it was a good experience, it helped us cut through much of the usual frustrating aspects of car buying and helped us know almost immediately who was a reputable dealer and who wasn’t,” he said.

The Bottom Line: Pros and Cons and How You Can Make TrueCar Work to Your Advantage

Based on our research, we believe TrueCar’s strengths are that it is a free service and there is a possibility that you can take their Price Quote into a dealership and close the sale quicker than you could without a TrueCar price.

We see the site’s two main downsides being the onslaught of calls, texts, and emails you may receive once you submit your phone number when you set up your account, and the fact that the dealership does not have to honor the price quote you get from TrueCar.

With these things in mind, we think there is one very clear way to use TrueCar to your advantage. If you’re the type of person who likes to bargain at dealerships, then you can leverage TrueCar’s Price Quote because it’s most likely based on hard sales data in your area.

If the dealership is asking for a price that they know people aren’t going to pay, your quote can be a tool you use to bargain them down.

The second way you can leverage it is, assuming the dealership takes the price you bring them, then TrueCar is a simple way to buy the car you want at the price you want without having to deal with the back-and-forth that’s common at car dealerships.

If you aren’t the bargaining type and you don’t want to go through a dealership experience but you want to deal with a fixed price, take a moment to read through our review of Carvana. The site provides you with straightforward pricing as well as a selection of primarily late model cars in ads that feature excellent photography. For additional options for buying a car, see our review of Vroom.

Customer Reviews

Start your review of TrueCar:
  • 109 Customer Reviews
  • 12% Recommend This Company
1.5 out of 5
5 star: 6% 4 star: 3% 3 star: 3% 2 star: 3% 1 star: 82%

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  • Got a great deal using TrueCar

    • By BozFan2012,
    • Hickory, NC,
    • Jun 18, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    We used TrueCar, then contacted a Hyundai Dealership closer to us that was not a TrueCar member. They said they would match the price, so we let them fight it out over best pricing. We actually saved another $900 in addition to what the TrueCar certificate showed. Always get two dealerships involved and let them go at it for your business.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • Saved me tons

    • By Drew,
    • Jul 16, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    Love this TrueCar service. I saved tons of money using it. I saved 15 percent off of the MSRP for my Toyota Highlander.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • Beware of dealerships, not TrueCar

    Overall Experience:

    People, don't criticize TrueCar for your bad car shopping experience. TrueCar matches you with the dealer right away. And if you have a bad experience buying car, it's because of the dealer's shady practices. Truecar matched me to a few dealerships, and indeed I was getting bait and switch offers from some dealerships. Some of the dealerships did not have a car in stock and were trying to sell me something else. Well it's not TrueCar's fault. However, when Truecar matched me dealership called NYE Toyota, Oneida NY, they were straightforward and honest and beat all the competitions. I got a great deal! Conclusion: Make sure that car salespeople don't fool you, TrueCar just matches to the dealerships, the rest is on you.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • Perfect way to purchase a car

    • By Audie Hofmann,
    • Walnut Creek, CA,
    • Feb 13, 2016
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    I've used TrueCar twice in the last 6 months, first to purchase a new 2015 MINI and just recently to help my son purchase a 2016 VW Jetta.

    The process and experience was flawless in both cases. I save over 10% on the MINI buying it for $1000 under dealer cost and saved almost $5k on the Jetta getting an astounding $4760 of sticker.

    No hassles and in and out of the dealers in an hour.

    Highly recommended.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • TrueCar is great. Dealers are Crooks.

    • By Mike,
    • Long Beach, CA,
    • Jul 16, 2016
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    I got the best deal I ever got on my car. TrueCar is a great app. It's the dealers, they don't want to sell it to you for the price that it shows on the app. It took me 11 hours at the dealership to get the car I wanted. They just drag their feet all they could. He told me no this is how it works. I had talk to someone at TrueCar and they told me how it works. Told them to call the lady I talked to. They didn't do it but I got the car for the price on the app. Sales people don't make the money they want to make. They are a bunch of thieves and crooks.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • Connected me to a dealer that got me exactly what I wanted

    Overall Experience:

    I was at one Subaru dealer shopping for an outback and waiting for the salesman to return when I pulled my phone (mostly out of boredom) and searched TrueCar. Admittedly, I didn't get the result I was looking for at the time. However, when dealer #1 came back with an offer that was WAY far from my target, I walked.

    A few days later, I was contacted by a dealership that TrueCar had sent my info to. I was annoyed at first to be sure, but it turned out that they called me because they could offer exactly what I wanted at the price I wanted to pay. No lie. I had to drive 40 minutes to get there, but one trip later I had my car.

    To give you an idea of the difference, dealer #1 was offering me the base model at $350/mo. Dealer #2 (from TrueCar) got me the next trim level up for $310/mo. Like I said, miles apart. Gold star for TrueCar.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • Buying my truck at Piehl Motors

    • By Jennifer P.,
    • Illinois,
    • Dec 16, 2019
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    Bought my truck at Piehl Motors, gave the salesman the features I need on a truck and he worked hard to find it in such a short time frame. Found my truck and got a decent price with all the rebates.

    The service is very good. I wanted a cover on the back, they immediately ordered and it was put on in 3 days. They even offered to deliver my truck home after the cover was installed. Very happy with the dealership.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • Worked As Promised

    • By Thom,
    • Concord, CA,
    • Jul 2, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    Just bought a new Honda in El Cerrito. The TrueCar certificate was honored as promised. I added a few options but the base price was what was on the certificate.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • TrueCar is best for the dealerships

    • By Jeff,
    • Tacoma, WA,
    • Jul 23, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    Short and sweet. I just purchased a new 2015 Truck. I worked on a Ford, GMC, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota. In each case I wanted a 1/2 ton, 4x4, leather. I used TrueCar and Edmunds. The high, middle, low numbers are all completely false. Without exception, I was offered a lower price from many dealerships than the lowest listed on each site without even negotiating. I eventually ended up with a Toyota Tundra $650 under invoice. The dealership invoice is the most you should pay, and depending on how long the car has been on the lot, you can go much lower than that. The day the dealerships started showing invoices was the day I knew it was a scam. No other company shows you their invoice. Dealerships have tons and tons of cash held back. So in a nut shell here, if you pay below invoice you are lower than TrueCar or any website that offers this advice. I really think the car industry started these sites to price condition you before you go to the lot. I'm 95% sure this is the case. Either this or they are getting money on the back end for setting a price condition for the industry tat even on the low end is pure profit for the dealerships.

    I think I'm going to start a business negotiating for you and take 33% of the savings over what you can get yourself. I believe that could be $500 per deal. A couple deals a day and that's already a decent living, or you can only buy if you start $500 under invoice and go lower from there. Even Costco pricing is $100 under invoice and they make a killing on that.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

  • TrueCar Certificates

    • By Mike Blanco,
    • San Diego, CA,
    • Jul 23, 2015
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    After a month of shopping, I finally get it. If your certificate does not have a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) forget about it. I've visited dealers from National City to Escondido and all lots in between. One guy finally told me to read the disclaimer on the certificate. If we don't have it, we don't honor the price. So, once again, take your time and review all your certificates. Scroll down and you will see some have a vin number which means they are in stock at that dealership. Internet sales people, managers, TrueCar sales people at the dealerships don't have to be visited. Talk by text, phone or email. Much less stressful than walking in and talking to Joe Blow.

    Relax. Make it fun. Still looking for a good deal on a 24S package on a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited for my son but, so far, the best estimate we've gotten is $35,200 out the door. I know there is a better deal out there and we will get it eventually, and it'll be brand new too.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

  • It really works

    • By Jerry,
    • Nashville, TN,
    • Jul 24, 2016
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    It's not a magic bullet, but it works as a tool to negotiate the price you are willing to pay. When we first got to the dealership, the "best" price our salesperson gave us was $22,000 (tax, title, dealer prep, out the door), over a five year period at zero down, zero percent interest. That was high.

    After looking at the numbers, get a quote on paper to leave the dealership with you, if your dealer will not do that, run quickly away from him/her. Once you have the high number you can start backing stuff out, like buyers protection or Gap insurance. If you get the deal down to where it should be you will not need Gap insurance. Gap is defined as the amount owed vs the value of the vehicle, the higher the price you pay and the higher interest you pay, the more Gap there is in case you want to trade it, or sell it, or total it.

    And remember, do not EVER BUY when you go to the finance guy to sign all the paperwork, any kind of product from him/her. They are paid a commission on that, the more "protection" they "give" you, the more money they get from the insurance company they represent or the dealership you are buying from. Just nod and say no, no, no.

    Many consumer advocates specifically advise AGAINST buying any supplemental protection from the dealership or from a third party after the sale. They are expensive and carry deductibles plus they may not really protect you because of the fine print at the bottom of the contract. Again, if he/she insists that you buy additional protection, run as quickly as you can. If the deal is a real one, they will call you back. Remember, they need to sell, you don't have to buy their car.

    So now the work begins. What is the best price for your needs. All of what I have written assumes that you know exactly and precisely what car (color, model, extras) plus precisely HOW you want to pay for this car. Don't rely on the dealer to help you. He wants to sell a car, that's his only goal. Get your facts straight, stick to your guns, go forth and shop.

    Where can you get real numbers about the best price for the car you have locked in your brain? TrueCar works well, but make sure you do not talk to the dealer on the phone UNTIL you are ready to close. So, I suggest email or fax only. TrueCar will require a phone number and that's ok. But, you could use a Google voice number that will transcribe phone messages so you can use this as leverage against dealerships, one against another. So, understand that if you put your cell phone down you are going to get covered up with calls.

    TrueCar will give you the baseline numbers but that still may not be the real number. Why? There are many reasons for that. But be assured, the car dealership WILL make money regardless of what anyone tells you. They will not sell you a car below costs. They must make a profit. But, that profit can be trimmed down.

    So, in our example, the car for my daughter was pretty basic, end of year model. $22,000 was the original price, right? What if I told you that we finally bought that exact same car for $16,000 OTD. That's $6,000 in our pockets with a little work. Remember, start very low, you can always go up, but if you offer high, you can't go down. And never ever make a deal right after you drive a car, even if the dealer says that this model is few and far between. That's BS. Good luck, stand your ground, be fair, communicate, and watch what you say or sign.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

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