Buying a car in Costa Rica

Tips to a successful purchase…

When you move to Costa Rica, one major decision you’ll have to make whether to buy a car.  One option is to use the excellent public transportation system.  If you will be living in San José and don’t have experience driving in Costa Rica, this would be an excellent choice, particularly until you get your bearings.

If you decide you want your own vehicle, here are the kinds and brands you should consider, where you should purchase it and some common pitfalls you can avoid.

Buy a car in Costa Rica or abroad?

A common misconception among foreigners coming to Costa Rica is that you will save money by bringing a car here from overseas.  There are some big drawbacks to trying this.

  • You still have to pay the import duties, which is the main reason cars are so much more expensive here. Plus insurance and shipping costs.
  • You will have to go through the process of clearing the car through customs, either yourself (good luck) or with a customs broker (who will charge you).
  • If you buy a new car from a dealer in the US, the guarantee won’t be valid in Costa Rica.
  • The car may be damaged in shipping or have parts stolen in transit.  While the insurance you buy may cover this damage, it probably won’t.  Especially if the damage may have been pre-existing or not related to the handling of the container.

If there is some compelling reason you must purchase abroad, you will pay the following rates on cars, SUVs and pickups.

Less than 3 years old – 59.33%,
4-5 years old – 70.63%
6 or more years old – 85.32%.

Brand new cars purchased at dealers here have about a 20% worth of duties applied to the price.  These rates are applied not only to the Black Book value of the car (regardless of the purchase price), but also to the shipping and insurance costs.  If you would like to find out how much a particular vehicle will be charged contact Guardian Angels CR Relocation Specialists and they will be able to assist you with a quote.

New car considerations

Buying a new car

New cars here run about 30% more than new cars in the U.S.  This is more or less the import tax amount.  Any difference higher than 30% would be due to higher prices the dealer pays to the factory, model popularity, or because of a better reputation locally.

Some cars have the same safety features and standard accessories as a car you would buy in the U.S. Some cars are specifically sold here as Latin American market cars.  A few new cars are made specifically for the Costa Rica market with special engine tuning, motor sizes and suspension. Some brands that aren’t very popular in the U.S., like Suzuki, are excellent choices here.  This is due to the relative popularity locally and specific selling points like high clearances and four wheel drive.  Some brands that are very well known in the U.S. wouldn’t be very good choices to buy here even from a dealer.

  • Financing has improved dramatically in the last several years, but rates are higher than the U.S. Foreigners who don’t have legal residency or ‘authorized” income sources may encounter difficulty with financing, regardless of your credit rating.
  • Check the popularity locally of the car in the secondary market.  The more popular and respected cars will obviously retain their resale value better, and will offer more options when you need parts later.
  • Check out the dealer’s reputation service center and time that have been in business. L y S, Purdy Motor, Agencia Datsun, EuroAutos, Vetrasa & Vetrasa all have excellent reputations for inventories of parts, service and carry popular brands.  Not that you have to stay away from the others, but you have to do more research on them before buying.
  • “New” cars – Most brands only have one authorized dealer because Costa Rica is a small market.  But some makes have dealers that bring in 0 km cars that are “like new”. Often these are last year’s models that haven’t sold in Korea and are shipped here.   This isn’t to say that they aren’t good deals, you just have to read the ads carefully so that you know what your getting.

Buying from an Individual vs. Used Car Dealer

The used car dealer offers several advantages.  The principle one being that they are bound to offer a 30 day guarantee on the transmission and motor.  While a good mechanic will more than likely be able to steer you away from a real lemon, this guarantee is nice to have.  Another advantage is that they can offer financing on the cars they sell and they will take your car as a trade in, saving you the hassle of selling it.

Another big advantage is that most dealers are direct importers.  It’s no secret that the roads in Costa Rica are hazardous to the health of your car.  If you purchase a car that is just coming into the country, you are assured of getting a car that has suffered much less abuse when compared to any car that has circulated in Costa Rica for a few years.  This obviously benefits the mechanical condition of the car a great deal.  Also, many cars now are coming from Korea, which is a small country with great roads. That means low mileage and generally good overall condition.

There are 2 scenarios where buying from an individual could be better.  One case would be buying a 1 owner car from someone who you know is very meticulous about the care and maintenance of their vehicles.  Another case may be from someone who is leaving the country and who is desperate to sell the car at any price before they go.  If you find a car that is well below market value advertised, be careful to ascertain why the price is so low, because normally there is a reason: “ If it’s too good to be true…”

Cars to buy

What makes and models are the best for Costa Rica?

The 3 most popular brands in Costa Rica are Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai.

You can’t go wrong by sticking with these brands for several reasons:

  • Parts are readily available in almost any area of the country.
  • Parts are generally less expensive than any other brands.
  • These cars hold their resale value very well.
  • Mechanics are familiar with these cars and have the necessary equipment for diagnosis and repair.

Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Honda are also good brands that are popular and solid choices.  You have much more freedom if you plan to buy a new car from a dealer and drive it into the ground, but it still won’t hurt to keep the above factors in mind.

Economy vs. Power & Gasoline vs. Diesel

Buying a new car

You must consider that as of January 2006, super unleaded gasoline was over $3.00 a gallon in Costa Rica.  That means DON’T buy a V6 or V8 engine if you can possibly avoid it.  For a gasoline engine, most automobiles here are between 1500 and 2000 cc.  These motors have enough power to get up and down mountains, but they won’t bankrupt you every time you go to the gas station.  If you are driving in rural areas often, or want a car that will withstand the potholes much better, then you will be considering a 4 wheel drive SUV or pickup.  In this case, a diesel engine will be advisable.  Diesel fuel here runs about 2/3 of what gasoline costs.  The new minivans and SUVs with CRDI or turbo diesel intercooler engines that are 2800 to 3000 cc displacement are excellent choices.  You won’t see a real difference in acceleration or power and the diesel engine is more efficient than gasoline.

Article, opinions and information provided courtesy of

See Costa Rica Autos for sale (open in new window).

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