Use the Web when you need wheels

SAN FRANCISCO (09/22/2003) - If you'd rather show up at your high school reunion in a '76 Gremlin than lock horns with a pushy car salesperson over floor mats and finance plans, you're not alone. A few years ago, the prophets of the new economy told us that no one would ever have to wrestle with a pinkie-ringed car shark anymore. Instead, customers would just log on and buy a new vehicle completely online.

Well, the Internet didn't eliminate car buyers' desire to take a test-drive and count the cup holders. But online car information has developed into a great way to bypass the haggling and hit the road faster than a Hummer can slurp a gallon of premium unleaded. And you might even save a few bucks on the deal.

A plethora of car-related sites dot the Web, but many of the best are simply online versions of well-established automobile and consumer references. If you're still mulling over makes and models, for instance, a good place to start your research is the JD Power Consumer Center site. This lean, uncluttered site bases its findings solely on consumer feedback and helps you efficiently narrow your list of choices by price range, as well as by how you weigh the importance of safety, style, fuel economy, and other features.

You won't find detailed specs and pricing information about specific car models at JD Power, however. So once you've winnowed your list of prospects down a bit, take a spin over to Edmunds.com, where you'll find a wealth of data on both new and used cars. Along with extensive reviews, prices (including the dealer invoice, sticker, and average price paid by buyers in your area), and truckloads of advice on buying and selling, the site carries links to information on local availability, price quotes, updates on recalls, and maintenance tips. You can also set up a side-by-side chart of similar models to compare prices, features, warranty details, overall pros and cons, and comments from current owners.

The Lowdown on Lingo

One of Edmunds.com's most helpful features is its expertly moderated message board, which includes lots of unusually articulate (compared with many discussion boards) insights on hundreds of topics, ranging from how to determine a fair price to which cars' built-in music players can handle MP3-encoded CDs. Another must-read is "Confessions of a Car Salesman," a firsthand account of the seamy world of car sales, written by an Edmunds editor working undercover at a high-pressure dealership. Don't even consider visiting a car lot until you've read this rundown of sales lingo, tactics, and common ploys.

Edmunds.com alone holds enough useful data for you to make a reasonably well-informed buying decision, but comparing results with those of at least a few other sites is a good idea. Another one worth visiting is Kelley Blue Book, which, along with the used car trade-in valuations it's known for, offers its own buying advice, reviews, feature comparisons, and pricing tools.

KBB.com is very helpful if you're buying a used car or want to make sure that you're getting top dollar for your trade-in, but it lacks the breadth of Edmunds.com. Also, the site's less-than-elegant design means that getting the facts takes longer, especially on a dial-up connection.

Need a break from all of the facts and figures? Cruise over to the Car Talk section of Cars.com. National Public Radio's hilarious car gurus Tom and Ray Magliozzi mix plenty of useful dirt about cars--such as customizable reports that list safety bulletins, owner complaints, and recalls for virtually any model--with fun stuff like automotive haiku ("Went for oil change--got transmission, clutch, muffler. Bye-bye Oahu."), advice on how to resolve karma conflicts between you and your car, and downloadable road-trip bingo games.

Think Safety

If you're on the fence about several different models of cars, compare their safety records. You'll find basic safety ratings at the sites listed above and at most other consumer sites, but for details, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA site lists safety standards, crash test results, safety testing reports, defect investigations, recalls, and more, for just about every make and model on the road. Alternatively, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety posts similar information in a format that's more digestible and easier to read.

Once you've chosen your dream car, it's time to talk turkey. Most car buying sites, such as Autobytel.com and CarsDirect.com, simply forward your request for a price quote to a participating local dealer, which then contacts you with a figure or (occasionally) an invitation to visit the lot in person. (Of course, if you wanted to visit car dealerships, you wouldn't be shopping online.) Many dealers have "Internet-only" sales departments that focus exclusively on customers who contact them online. You can ask for price quotes at almost any car site, so be sure to cast a wide net. Send at least four or five requests, and compare the results.

Though you shouldn't assume that using the Web will guarantee you the lowest possible price for your car, if you do your homework and find a dealer that's comfortable doing business online, you'll probably score a pretty good deal without the dickering. According to Phil Reed, consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, the price you get online is typically within $100 of the price you would pay if you negotiated in person. "Generally the price quote you'll get from a dealer online is closer to the TMV (true market value--the average price paid by customers in your area for the same vehicle)," Reed explains, "as opposed to the traditional starting point, which is the sticker price."

How do you know if the price that the dealer quotes is a good deal? A common strategy is to check at Autobytel.com, ConsumerReports.org, Edmunds.com, or Vehix.com for the dealer invoice price (the price the dealer paid) for the car you want, and use this figure as a point of reference. Compare the invoice price to the manufacturer's suggested retail price (the radically inflated price the dealer wants you to pay), and look for a comfortable place somewhere between the two; obviously, the closer to invoice, the better.

Keep in mind that the more popular or hard-to-find the car is, the higher your price quote is likely to be. If you're not sure how to determine a reasonable price for the car you want, start by gathering as many price quotes as you can. Make sure you know the invoice price, and investigate sites such as Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com for dealer incentives and other offers that affect the final profit. Visit Edmunds.com to ascertain what other buyers in your area are paying for the same vehicle. Many buyers find that a good strategy is to take the lowest price quote they get from any dealer online and offer it in person as a nonnegotiable deal to the local dealer they like best.

Before you seal the deal, make sure you have all of the price details. Don't forget about hidden costs such as sales tax and license fees. Because unexpected extra charges have a nasty habit of showing up on final sales agreements, Reed suggests getting a copy of the factory invoice and asking for an "out-the-door" figure.

Some sites, such as CarsDirect.com, take an Amazon-style approach to car selling, letting you complete the entire transaction from the comfort of your home office. They'll communicate and process all the paperwork electronically, and some dealers will even deliver the car to your doorstep a few days later. If you have a compelling reason to go this route, fine; otherwise, set aside time to kick some tires and go for a test-drive before you sign on the dotted line. What looks terrific on screen might not have the same appeal when you're behind the wheel.

Even if you've already done the legwork and decided on the car you want, you may pay more by going the completely online route. If the convenience of home delivery appeals to you, approach a local dealer about whether it will provide this service for free; many will when asked.

Many of the same sites that offer new-car advice, including Autobytel.com, CarsDirect.com, and Edmunds.com, give you the scoop on used cars too. And many will help you locate the used car of your dreams. Enter the make and model you're interested in, how much you're willing to spend, and how far you'll travel to pick it up, and the sites will return a list of available cars and prices. Most are from dealers, but some are offered by individuals.

And if you like the idea of bidding for a vintage Karmann Ghia or a one-year-old Honda Odyssey, try EBay Motors. You might get a great deal--but first you had better figure out how to pick up the car if it's a few states away.

Matthew Moncreaff, owner and head teacher of a martial arts school in Acton, Massachusetts, has been a fan of online car shopping since he purchased his new Buick Rendezvous last spring. "The driveway to my new house used to be a ski hill, so I definitely needed a four-wheel drive," he explains. "Otherwise, all I knew was that I wanted a reasonably fuel-efficient, midsize SUV."

Moncreaff's busy schedule didn't allow much time for him to peruse car dealerships, so he turned to his laptop, visiting sites like Autobytel.com, Vehix.com, and Yahoo Cars to narrow the list. He also spent time at local dealers' and manufacturers' sites, tinkering with specs and gathering price quotes.

In the end, he bought from the dealer with the best site. Coincidence? Nope. "The site made it clear that this dealer was comfortable doing business online. It let me link to the manufacturer, set up specs, get prices, and even check local inventory. The salesperson e-mailed me with a fair price quote the day after I requested it, and I even got a decent trade-in for my old car. I never had to haggle over price. All in all, it was much easier than the traditional way of buying a car."

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