I have been looking for a used car recently across a selection of manufacturer and third party sites, and it seems there is plenty of room for improvement in the way their search tools work.

Ideally, a search tool should be easy to use, but still allow users to choose between complex features and sort the results effectively.

So how do some of the major car manufacturers perform? 


VW makes it nice and clear where visitors need to go from the homepage to search for a used car, a new one, or find other information:

VW homepage

The main problem here is that the search tool has been created using Flash, and the usability has suffered as a result. For starters, you have to wait while it loads up:

VW used car search

VW has provided plenty of options to choose the features you want on your used car. You can select from 16 different VW models, choose price range, mileage, fuel type, colour, age, and so on.

VW used car search options

It also allows you to fine tune your search so that you can select the features that are essential to you; things like air conditioning, CD player, iPod connectivity, alloys etc.

The fine tune tool isn't too good though - you have to move the slider by moving the arrow rather than clicking in the segments, which would be easier. It also doesn't allow you to fine-tune enough.

VW fine tune search

The search tool isn't bad, but the main problem is that, because it has been designed in Flash, it is too easy to go to another link on the page or click the back button and lose all of your search results, forcing you to go back through the whole process again.


BMW doesn't use Flash for its search tool, but doesn't allow the same level of detail as VW does when choosing different options and features.

BMW used car search

The search options are limited here; you can only search for one model and bodystyle at a time for instance and, though the advanced search tool offers more options, it isn't as flexible as it could be.

For instance, if the mileage on a car is important to you, it would be better to specify a search for cars up to a certain mileage. However, BMW only allows you to choose a mileage range. e.g. 20,001 to 30,000: 

BMW advanced car search


Unlike VW and BMW, it isn't that easy to find used cars from Ford's UK homepage. Plenty of people must come to the website looking to search for new or used cars, but the links are not clearly displayed.

Ford UK homepage

The search tool is also basic, again allowing you to search for only one model and body style at a time, while the price range is unnecessarily restrictive:

Ford used car search

The advanced search doesn't offer anything like the level of detail that the others provide. The only filtering options offered are colour, mileage, transmission and fuel type.

The product pages are also a let down, as they don't offer much information on the cars themselves. Only stock photos are offered, as well as a fairly basic level of technical detail: 

Ford used car product page  


One of the better car searches I found was on the Citroen website. It is simple enough to use easily, yet provides enough options for users to be able to narrow down searches, allowing them to search for options like air conditioning and CD players.

Citroen used car search

What is useful about this search is that, having got the results, the search parameters remain on screen so you can easily narrow your search if there are too many results to go through, or broaden it if there aren't enough.

The level of detail provided on the product pages is good, though they do open up in a new window, which isn't ideal:

Citroen product page


Of the four I have looked at here, Citroen has created the most usable car search, though the VW tool provides a lot of useful detail despite the use of Flash.

A lot of the other manufacturers' websites were similar to the four I've looked at here. The Alfa Romeo used car search was particularly bad, built in Flash and requiring you to wait for it to load after selecting each option.

Many others suffer from a lack of detail in the product descriptions, while a lot failed to provide adequate photos of the cars on show, or none at all.

Related articles: 
Tips on site search box design
20 colour tips for website design

Graham Charlton

Published 15 August, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

2566 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (10)

Save or Cancel


Nice analysis here! Used car searches can definitely get cumbersome and lose its effectiveness when trying to focus on too many things (flash, numerous options).

Albeit our vehicles are in the U.S., take a look at our search feature and let us know what you think!

almost 10 years ago


Ford Direct

GREAT post very analytical

We have a Ford Used Car search tool on our site and I'm trying to improve it at the moment, will take your comments on board and try my best to do better.

almost 10 years ago


Tim Jones

I find that Autotrader will list most main dealer stocks and be far quicker to use than searching by manufacturers web sites - which are often out of date showing stock now sold or at a different price. Compare the two approaches!

almost 10 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

That does seem to be the case Tim. I'm going to look at some third party sites like Autotrader and Parkers next.

almost 10 years ago



Hi Graham
I concur - autotrader is the way to go! Admittedly, it was a couple of years ago that I did use it to buy my car , but I wanted a specific make, model, mileage, age, colour, soft top but with a hard top too. As I expected with picky criteria, there wasn't a matching vehicle when I first searched (which was a very easy search to use), but I saved my criteria into their email alerts system and hey presto, along one came not long after, which I subsequently test drove and bought. Thanks to the site alerts feature I got my perfect car in much less time than I expected and couldn't praise the site and positive experience enough - clearly, even to this day years later!

almost 10 years ago



If you want to find a new site, one that isn't subject to advert after advert.... user friendly, un-biased.... go to http://www.visitcars.co.uk. i've put my name as the link aswell if you want to click on that. go for it, it was only launched last week and i've already sold my car for a fair price and i'm now on the look.... golf GTI if anyone see's one! enjoy guys.

almost 10 years ago


Branson Atterbury

That's a great post Graham.   We are the agency that delivered the Citroen UK used car search you reviewed.  That was back in 2005.   We just redesigned it working with the client who had great insights from data from 40 mystery shoppers reviewing various competitor dealer websites.   There is a noticeable impovement: we had an analyst undertake the Forrester Web Site Review Scorecard and sites scored +31 which is impressive.   Be very happy to share any best practice and insights (within client confidentiality), if anybody's interested ...    

about 9 years ago


Ford Cars

Good thinkings in your blog.As I likely with picky criteria, there wasn't a matched object when I initial searched (which was a really relaxed seek to use), but I preserved my criteria into their telecommunicate alerts grouping and hey presto, along one came not weeklong after, which I afterward experiment horde and bought. Thanks to the tract alerts boast I got my perfect car in some fewer term than I expected and couldn't praise the site and confirming change enough - clearly, yet to this day eld afterward.



over 8 years ago



Many others are suffering from a lack of detailed product descriptions, whereas a lot to show, or none at all on the cars failed to provide enough photos.

this is a cars very much.


mary scott

over 8 years ago


Rob Cook

as of timing is passing, Car Industry is become very huge industry, as every year so many cars, also it effected to Used Cars For Sale Bussiness,   it is very much require to move with the time & make some good changes in this, which make it again more & more succsessfull in coming year, Nice analysis & very usefull too,

about 8 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.