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: CarBuyingTips.com

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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  • It's a dealer marketing tool only

    • By Bruce,
    • Birmingham, Alabama,
    • Jun 18, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    Having worked many years in the car business (as a sales manager and general manager in a multi-nameplate dealership) I can tell you that this is nothing more than a marketing/lead generator. It is not the first such company - but they have become more common place thanks to the internet.

    Like most of these "services", dealers are "certified" by paying a fee to TrueCar. As long as the check clears, they are "certified"! This is also how TrueCar makes their money - they certainly are not a charitable or non-profit company. They also make their money by selling your information to anyone and everyone. You become classified as a "hot lead" and valuable to dealers. They want to get you in the door.

    To that end, they have no scruples about HOW they get you in the door. Low-ball, bait & switch, it doesn't matter. That is their whole goal. Getting you in the door gets TrueCar their payments from the dealer. Your satisfaction and a fair deal are of no importance to them - you are not the one paying their bills, the dealers are,

    There are plenty of resources available online to help you determine a "fair" price for a car. Also, be sure to search for any manufacturer incentives available - if you don't know about them, the dealer may not tell you and thus pocket the incentive. Do your research and then be prepared to walk away if you don't get the deal you want. Sometimes it is a matter of finding a dealer desperate enough to move a unit.

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


  • "So Now You're An Expert?"

    • By Jason Houston,
    • Phoenix, AZ and Bakersfield, CA,
    • Dec 15, 2016
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    Well, if you've just read the accompanying, undated editorial, "About TrueCar", and assuming you have connected brain cells, you've just learned what everybody else already knows: True Car's biggest stock in trade is B.S. And that includes all the traditional sub-categories that come with it, including lies, hollow promises, double-talk, excuses, bait-and-switch, explanations, usurious financing, inflated insurance, trade-in allowance secretly padded back into the sales price, and a host of other tricks, schemes, scams, deception and board games that have characterized the auto industry - and the horse-trading industry before it - for the past one hundred years.

    So, let's analyze True Car's claims:

    1. "This is the way car buying was always meant to be!" Really? Then why wasn't it that way done a century ago? B.S.

    2. "Learn what others paid for the same car." How? Because some computer software crook engineered some made-up data into an app? Where's the proof? How many cars were surveyed? How many buyers were consulted? Over what recent period of time? B.S.

    3. "Take your Certificate to any TrueCar Certified Dealership and pick up your car." What makes a 'TrueCar Certified Dealership'? What criteria is used to make them "certified"? Does TrueCar's certification mean all other car dealers are lying, dishonest, crooked thieves? B.S.

    Congratulations! As True Car says, "Now you're an expert!"

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


  • Inaccuracy at it's finest

    • By Henry ,
    • San Francisco ,
    • Dec 19, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    Let's start by saying, I work as an internet sales coordinator and am based out of the San Francisco bay area. I have dealt with Truecar and other similar services.

    My dealer was a certified TrueCar dealership until we pulled out recently. Part of the reason was the inaccuracy TrueCar provides consumers which ultimately makes the entire experience more confusing and hassling for our customers, ultimately painting us as the bad guys.

    First off, their prices are averages based off what others have bought similar cars for and TrueCar customers expect to get the same great deals others get but fail to understand that there are MANY variables that go into the price of a car. It is not as simple as buying an I-pad, a TV, a computer, etc., because unlike these items that are priced the same anywhere you go, cars are not.

    It is more like buying a house. Can you tell me how much a house is worth in a given area based off how much others have bought houses in the same area for? Of course not, because every house is different and priced accordingly. Likewise with cars, every car is equipped differently. Sure they may be the same year, make, model, and trim level but yours could have that sunroof, the 20 inch wheels you wanted, etc. It all comes at a price and it is definitely NOT free. Rebates and incentives also change on a monthly basis and what one person may qualify for, the next may not. A specific car may have an exclusive discount attached to it as well for whatever reason. All these things play a role in the final price of a car so to say anybody can purchase car X for Y price is absurd and only sets buyers up for disappointment. TrueCar does not address these issues to customers, or maybe it does but lets be honest, does anyone really reads the fine print?

    Then there is that feature where one can build and price out their ideal vehicle. Let's start by saying, the chances your dream car exists on any given lot is slim to none. Cars are pre-ordered, built and delivered to dealerships to sell, therefore your certificate is but a sheet of paper because your certificate is good for a car that is built EXACTLY as you envisioned. I'm sorry to say it but it's the truth and you have to know this going in.

    Now say by chance, the dealer does have that particular car and you have the TrueCar certificate. That's great! Go in with your certificate and purchase the car. Be warned, however, do not look at anything else because your certificate is VIN-specific meaning it is good for that specific vehicle and cannot be transferred to another vehicle even if it is the same year, make and model. Why? Because again, every car is built differently and hence has a different price, different rebates and incentives attached to it.

    With that said, TrueCar is successful because it makes its money by taking advantage of consumer's fear or hesitation towards negotiations and attempts to create this false illusion of transparency in hopes of getting consumers to buy into their services. TrueCar, however, fails in educating customers on the dynamics of the car business and ultimately, creates more confusion and frustration for both consumers and dealers alike.

    In my honest opinion, the best way to buy a car is the old fashion way. Find out which dealership has the car you think you want, go see the car to make sure that is the one you want, and negotiate for a fair price on that car. Sounds daunting but it's really not that difficult. After all, buying a car is a life-changing decision involving a fair chunk of change. Would you spend $20,000+ on something you haven't actually seen in person? Is it not worth your time and effort?

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


  • Scam Alert

    • By Rob,
    • NJ,
    • Jun 12, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    TrueCar is nothing but a scam. They may or may not honor the price that's "guaranteed" (which it's not in any sense). The only thing that's guaranteed is that if you use TrueCar you WON'T get the best price as dealers pay TrueCar $299 on the sale of a new car.

    Where does that money come from? It's from you over-paying on your new car. Use Edmunds and KBB and skip this scam.

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


  • A pile of junk

    • By Mike,
    • Pennsylvania,
    • Jun 26, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    I was looking at two vehicles, and heard about TrueCar. I put in the info about the cars and they emailed me three quotes from three different dealers with exactly the same price. I immediately got suspicious. So I did my own research, and found that I got a lower price on my own, at the three dealers that they recommended. So if you want the best price, do the research yourself. Buyer, beware.

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


  • Waste of time

    • By Muirite,
    • Nov 2, 2016
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    I am looking for a specific car with a MANUAL transmission. I checked out Truecar and the price looked good so I put in all of my info. Within 4 minutes I started to get phone calls and emails. I made sure (I thought) that they had the car I am looking for. I had a dealer that said they had exactly what I was looking for and was willing to meet the price target of Truecar so I went down.

    First, we sat down and they asked me all of the stuff that I put into the website. Really, again? I was thinking they had all of the info already, but whatever, so I did it again.

    Then I asked to test drive, they took me to the make and model that I was looking for but in a darker color than I want and not a MANUAL transmission. I said, "what's this I am looking for a silver, white or tan with a stick."

    The guy said "oh are you sure? My paperwork says automatic."

    I said, "when I put the request into Truecar and when I spoke to so and so I specified manual." I paused then said, "do you have this car in a manual any color?"

    The guy said, "Hold on let me check what we have."

    We went into the waiting room and he went somewhere. When he came back he said, "They sold the last manual right before you arrived." He paused and said, "we can get you the same car in auto for the same price or we can order it for you."

    Liars.

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


  • Spam calls

    • By Erin,
    • Mar 9, 2017
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    I signed up with TrueCar to get some prices on a car I am looking to purchase in the summer. Since signing up, my phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from all different kinds of car dealerships. I since then have just been sending all of my calls to voicemail and calling back my actually important calls from doctors, my school, and work.

    It's a nightmare. DON'T sign up for TrueCar. They will sell your phone number and life will never be the same.

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


  • Do not waste your time with True Car, they are Fake Car

    • By Armtech,
    • Florida,
    • Jun 24, 2015
    Overall Experience:

    I went with a TrueCar offer to my local dealership and I was told that Truecar is an advertisement Internet website, and they don't sell cars. They just confuse peoples mind.

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


  • Prices not accurate nor are they really good prices.

    • By Tim,
    • Alabama,
    • Nov 30, 2016
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    After spending three months comparing prices on used automobiles from three different neighboring states, I have come to the well-educated opinion that TrueCar is just not a good vehicle to achieve a good pricing point when buying an automobile.

    The 600 pound gorilla in this deal here is the hidden fees. Now before you begin to wonder about hidden fees, the cost to use the service is paid by the dealer that you get your price from. However, that dealer has to pay a fee in order to sell you a car, so if you just walk up off the street without using a referral website, then you could conceivably come out ahead of where you might be should you be referred by another entity. We know there is no free lunch people, if a car dealer pays a fee to sell you a car, in the end, you're the guy or gal that pays the fee, so in essence you're paying to get a price tag that might not be as good as you could get should you do the research like I did.

    I included TrueCar in my research, along with thousands of other websites, direct to dealer sites, other sites and the prices were within a few thousand dollars, but all in all TrueCar was slightly higher. And remember just because everyone else is paying more for a car than what they should pay, does that mean you have to do the same thing, just because an average price is presented is that a good price? I really do not care what someone else pays for a vehicle, it's all about what I pay. So with all that in mind, when shopping for a car or a truck I found that the TrueCar service presents premium prices before presenting filtered search results, (thus pushing certain deals ahead of what you are looking for). All in all it's not compelling or even interesting.

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


  • Generates a lot of unsolicited calls

    • By James,
    • North Carolina,
    • Jan 26, 2017
    • Verified Reviewer
    Overall Experience:

    In order to see any useful information, TrueCar makes you enter your phone number and email address, which TrueCar immediately shares with hundreds of car dealers, who start calling you immediately. So expect a LOT of phone calls and emails as soon as you look anything up on TrueCar.

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


  • Not really true

    • By S,
    • Chicago, IL,
    • Jul 24, 2014
    Overall Experience:

    I recently used True Car to help me purchase a new car. When I took the first quote I was given to the corresponding dealership they told me they didn't have the car and didn't know when they could get it. When I asked how they could give a quote on something they didn't even have I didn't get much of an answer. I had the same quote from a different dealership but this time I decided to check their inventory first and - surprise - they didn't have the car either. I had a quote on a different car at another dealership, and although they had the car they told me the price would actually be $600 more because I didn't qualify for a $600 rebate that they included in the figure (recent college graduate rebate). When I pointed out that there was no such disclaimer or clarification in the quote they didn't really seem to care.

    I'm left to think that True Car is just a scam to generate business for the dealerships. I might use it again as a reference point but certainly wouldn't trust the price

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


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