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Supply Chain Crisis Has New Car Buyers Turning to Backup Options

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Wheels

Amid a shortage of new cars, many buyers have been forced to kick the tires of overlooked models and brands.

Bill Korum’s Nissan dealership in Washington State. “Sales are growing,” he said. “We could sell a lot more if we could get them.”
Credit...Chona Kasinger for The New York Times

Oct. 14, 2021, 8:53 a.m. ET

The most desirable new vehicles are selling before they even hit dealerships. Used-car prices are through the sunroof. And automakers worldwide are idling plants and cutting capacity as they wait for more desperately needed chips to be delivered.

Instead of the more typical dealer discounts, markups are spreading to new cars, and for hot models like the Chevrolet Tahoe, $10,000 would not be out of the question. Shoppers, confronting a market that should have millions more new cars on the road this year, are shrugging and paying up.

With dealer lots cherry-picked and sparse, many car buyers have been forced to reconsider their choices and kick the tires of overlooked models and brands. Some are settling for paint colors they would normally dismiss. Others are turning from new to used. People are rethinking their transportation coming out of the pandemic and even changing the way they buy a vehicle.

At the moment, paying the suggested retail price on a new car might be a bargain. Can you wait a year? Then hold back, even if it means putting money into your current ride.

“It’s a bad time for consumers wanting a new car,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst with IHS Markit. “In 2021 the lost global automotive production is at 6.58 million units through the third quarter.”

Inflation has been running hot this year, and used-car prices are a key culprit. A report on Wednesday showed little sign that consumer prices were cooling, although used-car prices, after a huge run to start the year, have begun to ebb in the Consumer Price Index.

Can’t put off an automotive purchase? With mixed emotions, many shoppers are casting a wider net. There’s evidence that brand loyalists are venturing from their comfort zone out of frustration. Or necessity.

In Seattle, Ed Wood, a 63-year-old electrician, wants to replace his 1995 Chevrolet, fully understanding the timing is awful.

“My uncle is getting his affairs in order and offered to pay the lion’s share for a new one,” he said. “He wants to see me happy.”

Loyal to Chevy’s Silverado, Mr. Wood couldn’t find one. Little by little, he widened his search to dealers in Idaho, South Dakota and Texas.

“All sold out,” he said. “I went around and around with dealerships, then branched out to F-150, Ram, Sierra and Tundra and found either no stock available or crazy markups.”

It led him to the Titan from Nissan, typically in the middle of the pack of carmakers by sales, after General Motors, Toyota and Ford. Nissan’s pickup was more available and surprisingly appealing.

“Titan is definitely a strong contender now, and it wasn’t even on my radar when I started,” Mr. Wood said. “As a big guy, I found the seats to be extremely comfortable.”

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Credit...Chona Kasinger for The New York Times

The owner of Bill Korum’s Puyallup Nissan, outside Tacoma, Wash., backs that up. “We’ve always felt Titan was tops — it simply didn’t break through because of the fierce loyalty of Chevy, Ford and Ram owners,” Mr. Korum said. “It’s good to see it getting the love it deserves.”

He added: “We had 118 just a few months ago. Only 20 are still on the lot.”

The new landscape may be playing out in market data. According to IHS Markit figures, pickup brand loyalty — as measured by the number of buyers in a month who purchased the same brand they had before — was down to 51 percent in June, from 56 percent in March 2020.

Mr. Korum believes a refreshed full lineup from Nissan has helped sales, but a shortage of competitors’ models is drawing even more people to his showroom, he said.

“It’s not just pickups,” he said. “People that can’t find RAV4s, CR-Vs and Civics are finding the redesigned Rogue and Sentra to be a pleasant surprise. Sales are growing. We could sell a lot more if we could get them.”

Edgar Zurita, 43, of Fairfax, Va., veered hard from his initial choice. “We needed lots of space and seriously considered a new Kia Telluride S.U.V., but the markup of $18,000 for one on the lot was too much,” Mr. Zurita said.

“So we switched to shopping for minivans,” he added. “Still, Kia Carnival and Toyota Sienna were jacked up $12,000. I don’t like getting ripped off, so we ended up buying used, a 2019 Kia Sedona SXL van with 20,000 miles. It was a lot less expensive, and vans are more useful. Plus, I won’t lose as much when it comes to resale.”

Kia was running short of Tellurides before the pandemic, thanks to strong sales. It recently introduced the Carnival minivan (the successor to Sedona) with an S.U.V. look. “Carnival has been a tremendous fallback for those that can’t find or don’t want to wait for a Telluride,” said James Bell, from Kia’s global media relations office.

“We’re seeing a resetting of the market,” he added. “People understand that vans exist for a reason — they’re exceptional for hauling people. We’re also seeing buyers that are much more flexible, dropping down in size to Sportage when Sorento isn’t available or moving up to higher trim levels when they wouldn’t before.”

Used cars might be more affordable than new ones, but their prices have skyrocketed, too. Carvana, which sells used vehicles online and delivers them, offers eye-opening figures. According to its second-quarter results, it sold 96 percent more cars than a year earlier; revenue was up 198 percent, to $3.3 billion; and gross profit was $552 million, up 268 percent.

Part of Carvana’s success is the high demand in pre-owned vehicles. In addition, the pandemic has made consumers far more willing to buy online.

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Credit...Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This holds true for new cars as well. At Hyundai, Michael Stewart, a senior group manager, said, “Online sales have increased significantly.” He added that such sales were “24 percent of transactions for Hyundai in July 2021,” after “hovering around 10 percent last year.”

Kyle Bazemore, in Infiniti’s corporate communications office, said: “The pandemic did change our business for the better — and quickly. We were one of the first to get online purchase of vehicles up and running, and we feel it happened at least a few years in advance as a result of the pandemic.”

The chip shortage has changed buying trends at Volkswagen, too, in recent months, said Jessica Arntson, a product communications senior specialist. “For example, someone comes in looking for a fully loaded Atlas and walks out with midrange trim because that’s what the dealer can get them, or couldn’t find a Jetta but instead leaves with a Taos,” she said.

Some shoppers sped up their shift to electric.

“I was hoping to upgrade from my Honda Accord Hybrid to a Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid but found them impossible to find,” said Brad Ellman, an accountant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He wanted a plug-in hybrid because he was “hesitant to take the full leap into the E.V. world,” but with no Primes to be found he flipped the switch and went with a fully electric Tesla Model Y Long Range.

“Considering the big markups on the Toyota, the price of the Tesla wasn’t much more,” Mr. Ellman said. “My commute is 40 miles round-trip, but as an accountant I sometimes need to visit clients. I’ve not had any of the range issues I worried about. Now I may never go back to a gas-powered car again.”

Even sedans that languished on dealer lots a year ago are in short supply. It’s difficult to discern if they’re scarce simply because desirable S.U.V.s are all sold out. At Hyundai, U.S. sedan sales are up 52 percent, while S.U.V.s have risen only 40 percent. Are shoppers settling?

“It’s complicated,” said Mr. Stewart of Hyundai, “and not always about people switching to cars because they couldn’t get an S.U.V.”

He added: “There are still many shoppers out there interested in passenger cars. And unlike other automakers that are dropping sedans, we’re fully committed with Elantra and Sonata.”

Mr. Bell at Kia concurred. “Sedans might be getting a lift due to the S.U.V. shortage, but it’s not always clear because of this crazy unprecedented marketplace,” he said. “We’re hearing from our dealers that buyers coming in for a Seltos crossover are, in some cases because of scarcity, moving to our Forte. That sedan is scooping up business and has been a best seller for months. But people are looking at the larger K5 with new eyes seemingly on its own merits.”

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Credit...Chona Kasinger for The New York Times

Mr. Wood, who has been looking at trucks since the end of June, is still mulling his options. “It’s not easy,” he said. “I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but the process surprised me. I might go Nissan, but I might even wait to make the switch to electric with Ford’s F-150 Lightning. I’m kind of glad the shortage made me think much more creatively.”

Mr. Zurita has no regrets switching to a van. “It’s certainly the best car for a family,” he said. “We drove to Pennsylvania with six people and their luggage aboard. It was very comfortable.”

And though his wife, Mariana, jokes about the soccer mom image, she appreciates features like the surround-view camera and 120-volt outlet that powers her computer. The Zuritas may not have gotten what they wanted, but they’ve found they got what they need.

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