It's no wonder that in a world where you can order a pizza, make airline reservations and buy stock by computer you can now shop for a new car from the comfort of your home.
While you can't yet kick the tires, take a test drive, or sign on the dotted line, you can do nearly everything else you can do at a dealership.
With the click of a mouse, car shoppers can see pictures of their favorite models, learn about loan payments and even send in a credit check application.
Many on-line car shopping services are offered through the global network of computers called the World Wide Web. Via the Internet, computer users can view Web pages (sometimes called home pages) - interactive, electronic brochures with pictures and text. Search for a car by price range, for example, and get a list that fits the bill.
Let's take a spin through one such service offered by AutoSite, an Acton, Mass., company, which bills its site as "a clearing house of consumer automotive information." It went on line late last October. (Its address is http://www.autosite.com/). AutoSite's opening menu presents a cartoon-style drawing of a miniature new-car showroom, a used car lot, a garage, a library and a pavilion. Click on any of the pictures to enter a particular area.
Say I am shopping for a small to mid-sized sedan - a family car. I click on the "New Cars" icon and I have several ways to access AutoSite's data.
I can look for a particular model in an alphabetical list, or search by manufacturer or vehicle class. But I am not allowed to search on criteria such as body style. So I have to have some idea already of what make of car I am interested in.
Since I know what I'm looking for, I click on vehicle class. A list of vehicle classes appears on the screen and I choose family sedans. Up comes a list of nearly 100 cars, mostly 1996 models, sorted alphabetically by manufacturer.
I choose the 1996 Toyota Corolla. A chart appears showing the "base price" (manufacturers suggested price) for three models, and I'm given options to see more about the car. The least expensive model is $12,728. I click on the photo option and it takes about a minute for a color picture to arrive on screen.
There's more information here about the car, but this is where our free ride ends. To find out what the dealer actually pays for the car will cost $6.95. For that fee, I can also learn about any rebates and incentives offered, as well as standard versus optional equipment prices (including dealers prices).
I'm serious about the Corolla, so I take the plunge. At this point, I'm asked for an ID and a password. (Users must register their names and credit cards either on line or via an 800 number to be billed for the additional information.)
After agreeing to pay the extra charges to AutoSite, I learn that the dealer invoice is nearly $1,200 less than the suggested price for that model, probably a good bargaining tool when I go to the dealer.
I want to know what others say about the car, so I click on Reviews and Evaluations. There are entries for model years 1986 through 1995, but none for '96. However, crash test results by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are available for the newest Corolla model.
Next, I go back to the "free" area to the monthly payment calculator, near the main menu. I'll have to borrow $10,000 for that Corolla, and the calculator tells me a four-year, 9 percent loan will cost about $249 a month. AutoSite is easy to navigate, has limited search capabilities and seems to have all the relevant information to help shop for a car - some 30,000 pages. Much of the information is free, (not counting Internet connect charges you might have to pay) except for detailed car information and the "blue book" values of used cars ($1.95).
Another service, DealerNet, (http://www.dealernet.com/) takes the on-line car shopping process a step further. This free Web site, which was launched in December by a former car dealer in Seattle, Washington, works as a referral service to other car dealers.
Like AutoSite, DealerNet lets users search for cars by manufacturer, type and price range. You are also asked for your zip code to find the nearest dealer.
I'm still interested in that Corolla, so I choose "Toyota" and "Sedan." Twelve models come up on the next screen, and I see right away that the suggested price for the least expensive Corolla is $12,498.
About a minute later, a picture of the car appears, along with the name of the dealer who will sell it to me at that price. Unfortunately, there are no Rhode Island or Massachusetts dealers yet. I'm referred to one in North Carolina.
I'm told, however, that "a participating DealerNet dealer outside my area can answer my questions, provide pricing information and in many cases arrange for remote delivery of a vehicle."
(If I did choose to try the North Carolina dealership, I could click on "send e-mail" and negotiate a deal electronically.)
There's a wealth of information I can access about the car by clicking on specifications and standard features. One of the nicest features about DealerNet is the "shopping basket," which gives side-by-side comparisons of up to 3 different cars you choose.
DealerNet also has some automobile reviews, reprinted from an annual consumer magazine, New Car Test Drive. Only 1995 reviews are available so far, and there isn't one for the Corolla I'm interested in.
As you might expect from a dealer referral service, there is no on-line information available about dealer invoices. One place you can find that information for free on the Web is the on-line version of Edmund's Automobile Consumer Guides (http://www.dc.enews.com/magazines/edmunds/).
Among its offerings are the dealer invoices and crash test results that you must pay for at some on-line car-shopping services.
The graphics on the Edmund site are not nearly as slick as the others, but certainly as easily accessed.
If my research were complete and I were ready to buy, I might consider a number of on-line car buying services that promise to sell cars at or slightly above the wholesale cost to the dealer. Most pricing services describe wholesale cost as "dealer's invoice," which is not necessarily what the car actually cost the dealer.
One such service, Auto-By-Tel (http://www.autobytel.com/), offers this free service through its network of dealers willing to sell at wholesale. They say these dealers still make a 2- to 3-percent "holdback" from the manufacturer.
Manufacturers periodically refund dealers money they've held back at the time of sale. It never appears on the car's invoice, and the salesman doesn't share in it. According to Edmund's, most domestic car makers pay 3 percent of manufacturer's suggest retail price (MSRP); most foreign makers pay 2 percent.
"Our subscribing dealers also save money because the Auto-By-Tel sale is a simple sale," says some promotional material. "There are no layers of expensive sales commissions and advertising fees." Auto-By-Tel says it makes its money by charging dealers a subscription fee.
Users fill out a "request for wholesale purchase" and enter the car they want and select various options. Once the form is sent through the Internet, a dealer will contact the customer by phone or e-mail within 48 hours to tell him or her how much the car costs.
While the service is free to the car buyer, consumers are continually cautioned against using it as a pricing service. "All we ask of you is this: If our pricing meets your needs, please be ready to follow through with your purchase," says some on-line information.
But that seems akin to getting in a checkout line at the store with an item whose price you're not sure of.
To find other auto Web sites, go to a search engine such a Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com) and search for "automotive."
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