emember the last time you bought a new car or pickup truck? You probably visited the showrooms of several dealers, looked at dozens of vehicles, asked a lot of questions, and got a lot of sales pitches before you narrowed down your choices to three or four models. Then you sifted through a stack of brochures, spec sheets, and options lists. Perhaps you checked car reviews in auto magazines and consumer guides at the public library or at your credit union. If you're resourceful, you probably discovered the wholesale price--also known as "dealer invoice"--for each car you were interested in.
       Having done the legwork, you called or visited the credit union for a preapproved auto loan. Then you returned to selected dealerships and took a test-drive or two. Then came the hard part, negotiating the final price, face-to-face. Finally, you chose the dealership that offered the best value. And you hoped you wouldn't have to go through that whole rigmarole again soon.

       You won't. Now you can accomplish all the legwork at your computer, using interactive resources on the Internet--the only exception being a test-drive, of course. Here's a survey of what's available on-line.

A vast, virtual, 24-hour showroom.
On the World Wide Web you can access photos, specifications, and sticker prices for practically every vehicle make and model in the world, for the current model year. If you know the make of car you're looking for, you can go to the manufacturer's web site and find all that information free. Typically a manufacturer's universal resource locator (URL) will be www.[manufacturer].com.
       To browse a variety of car makes, go to on-line car-buying services such as DealerNet, Edmund´┐Żs, Kelley Blue Book, and Car Price Network, or to Car and Driver magazine's web site, which offer comprehensive specs free for all makes and models (see URLs at the end of this article). Each site offers tens of thousands of pages of data for hundreds of car makes, models, and styles, including the following:

  • Dimensions, weight, capacity
  • Manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) and destination charges
  • Engine type, size, and power
  • Transmission type
  • Brand and type of tires
  • Color choices (body and interior)
  • Standard equipment
  • Optional equipment and option packages, with itemized prices
  • Warranty information
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated gas mileage
       If you aren't sure which manufacturers make the kind of car you need, take advantage of the interactive, criteria-based search mechanisms offered by AutoSite and IntelliChoice. For instance, let's say you want a station wagon with four-wheel drive, manual transmission, antilock brakes, power-lock doors, cruise control, and at least 25 miles per gallon highway EPA, for less than $25,000. Enter those criteria and within seconds get a list of vehicles that meet your needs.

Narrowing down your choices.
One very useful tool for the undecided shopper is the side-by-side comparison, offered free by AutoSite and DealerNet. Select any two or three vehicle models and display dozens of specifications ranging from prices to horsepower to trunk space, all in a neat chart that helps you compare the cars and decide which is the best value. You can do that as many times as you want with any combination of models.
       You also can get expert opinions by looking up reviews and test-drive reports. For example:

  • DealerNet reprints articles from New Car Test Drive magazine.

  • Edmund's web site provides staff-written and -conducted car reviews and test-drive reports. Edmund's publications don't accept advertising from any car manufacturers or dealers, so the reviews are unbiased.

  • Some automobile magazines and major newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, publish their reviews and road tests on-line for consumers. Consumer Reports makes information available to America Online and CompuServe subscribers.

On-line Resources for Used-Car Buyers

If you're looking for a specific used car, life just got easier. Some of the on-line car-buying services offer used-car searches. All you have to do is enter the make, model, and year, and within seconds you'll get a list of dealers, if any, that have that car on their lots--with prices. These sites include AutoSite, AutoWeb, Car/Puter, DealerNet, Edmund's, and Kelley. Only Car/Puter charges a fee for this service.

Wholesale and retail prices.
Now you're almost ready to visit a dealership or two or three, take your own test-drives, and talk turkey with the dealers. First, though, arm yourself with a little knowledge about the cars' wholesale prices. Some on-line services disclose dealer invoice, as well as factory-to-dealer rebates and other incentives. This info can help you negotiate a low, fair price. Kelley, which publishes the well-known Blue Books, and Edmund's, which publishes the Automobile Buyer's Guides, provide wholesale figures on the Internet, free.
       Finally, after you've taken your test drives and settled on the car you want to buy, focus on the final purchase price. Again, on-line services can refer you to a dealer and help you negotiate a fair price--in some cases the lowest possible--for the exact car you want, so you might skip the face-to-face haggling entirely. In fact, it's possible (though not necessarily advisable) to purchase a new car without ever setting foot in a dealership.
       There are two kinds of dealer referrals among the on-line car-buying services:

  • The first involves a "guaranteed lowest achievable price," available from AutoAdvisor for a fee of $155. At the AutoAdvisor web site you enter the car's make, model, colors, and options, along with your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. You can pay for the service over the 'Net with a credit card. Within five days, AutoAdvisor will e-mail you the names, addresses, and phone numbers of up to five dealers in your area (or any area that you designate) with the car in stock, along with their price bids on that car. AutoAdvisor guarantees you will not find the same car at a lower price anywhere else in the designated area. Then it's up to you to contact the dealers and consummate a deal. AutoAdvisor does not have contractual obligations with dealerships, so they are free to negotiate with any of them.

  • The second referral type is free, involving a prenegotiated price but not necessarily the lowest possible price. The on-line car-buying services in this category--Auto-By-Tel, AutoVantage, AutoWeb, and DealerNet--each work with a limited network of dealerships. When you submit a request for a quote, they search their networks to find (within as little as six hours) a dealer close to you who will offer a prenegotiated, "preferred" price. Auto-By-Tel and AutoVantage, which have the largest dealer networks, prohibit further price negotiations. You can contact the dealers by e-mail, phone, or in person to accept or reject the hard offer; if you don't contact them, they'll contact you. AutoWeb and DealerNet have smaller referral networks but do permit further price negotiations.
           Dealers pay the on-line services a subscription fee to be included in the dealer networks. The fee may be based partly on the volume of referrals that the dealers receive. The dealers do not pay sales commissions to the on-line services, and the on-line services are not brokers.

Internet Car-Buying Resources

Following are the URLs of the major on-line car-buying services and relevant publications. In addition to the data and services mentioned above, many of these web sites contain information about car leasing, loans and credit applications, auto parts and accessories, insurance, used-car trade-in values, car chat rooms, and hypertext links to dealers' web pages.

1: Comprehensive specifications, photos, sticker prices, standard equipment, options
2: Criteria-based search
3: Side-by-side comparisons
4: Reviews, road tests, safety data
5: Dealer invoice and incentives
6: Referral to nearest dealers (unlimited search)
7: Referral to dealer on limited network, with negotiated price
8: Used-car search and/or prices

$: Available at a charge    F: Available free

Web Sites
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

$ F F $ $ F
$ $ $
F $ F
Car Price Network
F $
$ $
Edmund's Automobile
Buyer's Guides

F $ $
Kelley Blue Book

1: Comprehensive specifications, photos, sticker prices, standard equipment, options
2: Criteria-based search
3: Side-by-side comparisons
4: Reviews, road tests, safety data
5: Dealer invoice and incentives
6: Referral to nearest dealers (unlimited search)
7: Referral to dealer on limited network, with negotiated price
8: Used-car search and/or prices

$: Available at a charge    F: Available free

Magazines 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Car and Driver
Motor Trend
F $
Consumer Reports
Available through America
Online (keyword:consumer)
and CompuServe
(go consumer).

Please note that contents of web sites are subject to change without notice.

Table: © David M. Freedman, 1997

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