They’re paying higher prices than ever, so why are car buyers so happy?

A wildly unexpected piece of news: Most people who bought a new car in 2021 are happy with the experience.

2021 was a miserable year to buy a car, according to thousands of headlines, many of which we’ve written. Prices soared to new records—the average new car sold for more than $47,000 in December. That average increased by more than $6,000 in just one year. Nationwide, dealerships faced low inventory due to a microchip shortage.

Yet, 66% of new car buyers described themselves as “highly satisfied with their shopping experience” in the 12th annual Cox Automotive Car Buyer Journey Study. Cox Automotive is the parent company of Kelley Blue Book.

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The number isn’t quite a record. The record came in 2020 when 72% of buyers called themselves highly satisfied—just before the inventory crisis began.

Dealership experience growing more pleasant

So, if we’re all paying more than ever, why are most buyers happy with their experience?

Because going to the dealership has grown more pleasant. Seventy-five percent of new vehicle buyers in 2021 said they were happy with the dealership experience.

“Despite external market factors that dealers cannot control, the car buying experience remains amazingly good,” said Vanessa Ton, senior manager of research and market intelligence, Cox Automotive. “Dealers have done a great job adapting to what consumers wanted during the pandemic and have permanently evolved the car buying journey in a personalized way that results in very high satisfaction even when consumers are contending with historically low inventory and record-high prices.”

Also see: 10 top cars of the year

Shoppers visiting fewer dealerships

In a trend accelerated by the pandemic, consumers generally remain less likely to visit dealerships during the car buying process. The average buyer visits only two dealerships in the process and relies more heavily on digital tools, the study found.

About 18% of buyers completed more than 50% of the buying process online—a number that ticked down 2% since 2020.

Purchases getting faster

Shoppers also put less time into the purchase process. Buyers reported spending just under 12.5 hours researching and shopping for a vehicle in 2021, down 46 minutes from 2020.

Three out of four buyers relied on third-party websites for most of their research.

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Those buyers who applied for financing online were significantly more satisfied with the financing process and saved almost a half-hour on average at the dealership.

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