Last year I inherited a minivan from my brother. I’m barely 5 feet tall, and I felt like I was driving a cruise ship. A few passenger side dings and scrapes later, I started researching how to buy a new car. I narrowed down my choices to a Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru Outback. I spoke with friends who owned those cars, did numerous test drives, and checked out car maker websites and a few blogs.
I finally decided on the CR-V, and then came the tough part. Between 2016 and 2017, Honda changed the trunk space and I wasn’t sure which was more optimal. I really wanted to know if I’d have room for all my groceries and diapers with a labradoodle sitting back there. Because dealerships don’t normally let customers go to Costco for a test drive with their pets in the back seat, I did the next best thing and went onto CRVOwnersclub.com, a forum dedicated to finding out these type of answers.
Talking to friends and researching car websites made me 90% sure which car I wanted. But I wanted to be 100% certain that I was making the right choice for my family and me. That’s why I turned to a CR-V forum. A car is such a big investment that taking a little extra time to get the personalized info you are looking for from car forums is a great ROI.
Lots of car websites can help consumers find most of what they need, like safety features and driveability, and that may be good enough for some people. But if you plan to spend, say, $100,000 on a Tesla Model X, you may want more details, like how many city miles the electric SUV will get when it’s 90% charged. You’ll get hundreds of responses from Tesla drivers sharing their experiences on that topic on the TeslaMotorsClub.com forum.
Threadloom ran a consumer survey in 2015 asking users how they researched their most recent car purchases, with a list of options such as car websites and friends and family. The top response among users was car sites like TrueCar or Edmunds at 41%. Forums, at 18%, came in second as the most influential online free channel, ahead of YouTube, Facebook, Craigslist, or car maker websites.
Talking to friends and family received 33% of the votes, and Consumer Reports, which requires a paid subscription, was referenced among 23% of users. Though forums ranked fourth among all 12 options, I suspect the happiest car owners are those 18% who took the extra step to use car forums. These online communities are the only place where you can get informed with customized dialogues – like the vibration level of steel wheels or the reliability of an updated navigation system – from actual car owners.
“Cars are extremely complicated devices. You really need the depth of people’s real experiences,” says David Zatz, who founded Allpar, a forum dedicated to Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram cars, with more than 15,000 active members. “If you want to know exactly what options are troublesome or what to watch for – like which Chrysler uses a Microsoft or Unix-based [touchscreen] stereo system, you can find that in the forums. You won’t get that in Consumer Reports.”
The answers savvy car shoppers are looking for often aren't found in company press releases or limited views from well-meaning friends or family. “A lot of times, you’ll have 30-40 informational news sites regurgitating the same thing. A press release comes out, and it gets rewritten on dozens of other sites,” says Ken Payne, who manages several forums about Ford trucks and muscle cars like z28.com.
“There’s no profit motive from users who contribute on the forums. You have a lot of people with decades of experience who are sharing their knowledge. Sometimes it’ll be engineers who build the cars that jump in on the discussions.”
I spoke with friends about their CR-Vs, but no one could really answer my question since the same model varies slightly by each year. On CRVOwnersclub.com, I was able to find multiple measurements of the trunk space from 2016 and 2017 posted by CR-V owners. One user even posted photos of the trunk space with his dog in the back for reference. When it came to spending more than $20,000, I wanted to make sure I got all the information I needed. And what I found on the forums helped me make the leap to buy my first car in 20 years.