But data shows such markups are pervasive: 4 out of 5 American car buyers paid more than MSRP in January, according to auto market research firm Edmunds. That compares with 2.8 percent the same month a year ago and 0.3 percent in 2020.
The premium set consumers back $728, on average, though industry experts say four-figure markups are common on popular sedans and compacts, including Hyundai, Kia and Honda. Some car shoppers reported that the extra cost can run $10,000 or more for sought-after electric vehicles and hybrids.
Ford and GM’s warnings expose tense undercurrents between legacy carmakers and their dealers, which have grown more fraught in recent years as upstart electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla, Rivian and Lucid sell directly to consumers. Legacy manufacturers are often required by state law to sell through dealerships but have conspicuously eyed direct-to-consumer sales strategies in recent years.
Analysts say higher prices at the dealership plus conflict over the future of sales could slow expansion in the nation’s still-nascent EV sector, which climate scientists say is crucial to tamping down carbon emissions from transportation. Sticker prices for hybrid and electric vehicles have fallen significantly over the past decade but remain out of reach for the typical car buyer.
But the industry has a way to go: EVs accounted for about 3.6 percent of U.S. vehicle sales in the second quarter of 2021, according to a report from McKinsey & Co., compared with 1.6 percent at the start of 2020. Tesla leads the electric vehicle market by a wide margin, but traditional automakers like Ford, GM and Volvo are introducing new battery-powered vehicles of their own.
Volvo announced last March that it wants to be a fully electric car company by 2030 and sell online only.
Americans bought 15 million vehicles in 2021, up from 14.6 million in 2020, according to Cox Automotive. Sales grew even as a global computer chip shortage stymied production, leading to smaller inventories and higher prices. That had a trickle-down effect on the used car market, where prices climbed 40 percent in January compared with the same period last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But legacy automakers are banking on consumers transitioning to electric-powered vehicles in the coming years, and dealers worry those manufacturers will follow the path of EV start-ups in selling the vehicles directly to consumers. That would cut dealers out of a projected nearly trillion-dollar market by 2030.
Price markups pinch consumers
Sharon McNary, an amateur triathlete in Los Angeles, went looking for a hybrid Ford pickup in early January to better carry her bicycle to scenic locales outside across California. A Ford dealership in Orange County asked for $12,000 above the hybrid’s MSPR.
No deal, she said. “The car market is completely bonkers right now,” she told The Washington Post.
She turned to David Eagle, a Los Angeles-based auto broker, to help her scope out the market. His company, Current EV, helps car shoppers navigate electric vehicle rebates and incentives, and negotiate with dealers to get a reasonable price.
But even Eagle couldn’t get the price McNary wanted. She is still driving her Honda hatchback.
Since the pandemic began, Eagle told The Post, the auto market has swung from one extreme to another. Carmakers cut production in 2020 during the initial waves of coronavirus infections. Prices fell, and perfectly good autos sat on dealer lots for months.
Then in 2021, buyers’ appetite roared back just as supply chain snags, especially in microchips, hampered manufacturers.
Dealers of brands across the price spectrum see new business imperatives to cope with the short supplies, Eagle said, and they have every right to mark up the price of cars they purchased wholesale.
Jeff Aiosa, who owns a Mercedes-Benz dealership in New London, Conn., said he normally has two- to three-months’ worth of vehicle inventory on his lot. In the past several weeks, he said, he’s had less than a 20-days’ supply. A growing number of the cars that reach his lot are already spoken for: a buyer reserved it on his website. There aren’t many unclaimed vehicles that a customer can drive home from his facility. Fewer sales mean he has to mark up prices on what he does have.
“I think that a lot of the high line luxury buyers understand that, ‘Look, your volumes are down and you historically always discount,’ ” Aiosa said. “’If we need now to pay a little bit of an upcharge for something that we want and need right now, we understand that that’s the environment that we’re in. And you have to stay in business, and we want you to stay in business because we don’t want to come back and see the lights off and not be able to service our car.’”
But rising dealer prices have swept across nearly all brands. GM’s luxury brand, Cadillac, had an average $4,048 markup in January, according to Edmunds. Kia, Korean automaker Hyundai’s bargain brand, had a $2,289 markup.
GM did not respond to a request for comment. Hyundai in a statement said it “consistently reminds its dealers of the need for complete transparency” on pricing and “strongly reinforce[s]” that prices advertised online for vehicles should align with retail prices. “We strongly discourage our dealers from charging prices above MSRP,” the company said.
Ford, meanwhile, saw a $163 sale price above MSRP on average, and GM’s Chevrolet and GMC brands sold for $625 and $677, respectively, higher than sticker price — but still lower than the industry average markup. That underscores just how much of a threat Ford and GM find unruly dealer prices to their newly launching models, said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’s executive director of insights.
That kind of price volatility — along with the industry’s pivot to more eco-friendly models — has manufacturers looking to reposition themselves in the market.
“With the industry changes to product itself,” Caldwell said, “you can’t just change that. You have to evaluate the way things are sold as well.”
Automakers, dealers consider electrified future
Ford chief executive Jim Farley told investors this month that 10 percent of the company’s nearly 3,000 U.S. dealerships were consistently pricing vehicles above MSRP in 2021.
In response, spokesman Said Deep told The Post, Ford reserves the right to “redirect their allocation” of F-150 Lightning electric pickups for the 2022 model year.
F-150 Lightning customers have only recently been able to convert their reservations for the vehicles into firm orders, Deep said, and Ford was receiving complaints that certain dealerships were inflating the cost above the sticker price customers ordered under. Overpricing the vehicles could dent the reputation of the truck, Ford and its new EV offerings, the company reasoned.
“The Lightning is a big deal for us,” Deep said. “It’s a leap ahead in innovation for any of our trucks. It plays such a critical role for our brand and all our dealerships.”
If dealers continue pricing above MSRP, he said, Ford may reallocate their assigned inventory for forthcoming electric releases, including the Bronco SUV and Maverick pickup.
To some dealers and auto industry experts, those moves portend a wholesale shift in how carmakers envision the future of sales.
Farley told investors that the profitability of Ford’s gas-powered models gave the company the resources not only to scale up EV manufacturing capabilities, but also to increase margins on EVs “through things like vertical integration and new customer experiences, accelerating our physical experiences to the dealers on both businesses.”
Talk like that could have dealers spooked, said Brian Moody, the executive editor at Autotrader. Car sellers have watched EV start-ups march through state legislatures defeating franchise laws that require automakers to sell their cars through dealerships and not directly to consumers.
Legacy automakers have grown envious of that technique and could stand to gain significant profits by cutting out the dealers some see as middlemen.
Traditional carmakers “are finally realizing that commerce changes … there are new ways of doing business,” said Jim Chen, vice president of public policy at Rivian and a former Tesla lawyer.
“This is not because Rivian and Tesla are demanding this,” he said, “it’s because consumers are demanding choice. They’ve gotten used to buying online.”
Dealers are sometimes skeptical of EVs, too, Moody said. Electric cars have higher upfront costs than gas-powered vehicles, and though government incentives are available, they’re usually through tax rebates; consumers often wait months before they recoup the savings from those programs. EVs also require far less maintenance than conventional autos, meaning dealers lose long-term revenue when a customer chooses an electric car.
But just because legacy manufacturers are pivoting to EVs, experts say, they cannot simply ditch their dealer partners. Carmakers mostly don’t want to handle the real estate obligations of sales or the logistics operations of moving finished products. Dealers also have deep expertise in direct sales and local marketing. In other words, they know how to get customers in the door, then driving off the lot in a new car. Manufacturers in many cases don’t want to take on those new specialties.
Deep, the Ford spokesman, said the automaker wants to get more involved in the EV sales process because of the vehicles’ growth potential in the American market and the experience consumers expect when purchasing an electric vehicle. Dealers, he said, remained a crucial part of the company’s approach.
More than three-quarters of F-150 Lightning reservation holders are new to Ford, Deep said, many coming from EV start-ups that have direct-to-consumer sales.
“The dealers all know that this is a different customer,” he said. “They want to do it right.”