ou've probably heard that the World Wide Web is the ultimate no-muss, no-fuss auto showroom. The promise is alluring: Simply key in the URL, and quicker than you can mutter "uniform resource locator," you are awash in timely information about cars and trucks. Once you select your dreamboat, entering your name and address will whisk you to an electronic nirvana where you can buy a car without even entering the dreaded showroom.

Getting car info on the Web, and even buying one, may be that simple--for some people, some times. But a Home & Family Finance Online survey has found pitfalls in the electronic approach that are eerily similar to those you've met in the showroom.

True, you'll find a ton of seemingly up-to-date cyberdata about everything from a "basic transportation" Hyundai to a 375 horsepower Ferrari Berlinetta (with a base price more than $120,000, at least a six-speed manual gearbox is standard!).

Although most of the services are free, and all are available day or night, your search for the ultimate wheels could, like every other search on the Web, wind up as a virtual version of Jason's agonizing quest for the golden fleece. At the least, you'll probably endure that "I can't get there from here" feeling so characteristic of the Web.

And when all is said and done, you could find yourself in the car-buyer's familiar position: ignorance. What was the source of the information? Who wrote the car reviews? Did subtle product placement influence your decision? Did you succumb to "low-rate financing" that ended up costing more than a credit union loan?

Most important, could you have done better negotiating face to face in a dealership?

There are plenty of sites with various kinds of information, advice, and assistance for car buyers. Here's what we found when we punched in some of the most promising URLs (we couldn't try every one). We've listed links to these sites below.

      It may be the Web,
      but it's still
      the car business.

Surfin' safari
AutoWeb says its network of cooperating dealers can "quote firm, competitive prices because our users know exactly what they want, and are ready to buy." Buyers are not obligated to buy, nor are they assured that they can't do better elsewhere. They are, however, assured that "The price quoted is the price you'll get. ... No bait and switch." For $12.50, used-car buyers can connect to a service that "knows" whether a used vehicle was ever wrecked or stolen, based on the vehicle identification number.

Cars are just one item on CompareNet's menu of consumer products. The "featured models" on the auto page look suspiciously like paid product placement, and the prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRPs). The site refers buyers to the Auto-By-Tel or AutoVantage Web sites to make a purchase.

AutoSite says 1.5 million people have used its service. Still, separate searches for reviews of a Ford Expedition and a Honda del Sol returned computer errors. The navigation paths were murky and the download was slow, even on a relatively fast connection.

Nonetheless, AutoSite does give away some priceless information, including the invoice price on some models. According to car-buying experts, it's much better to negotiate up from the invoice rather than down from the MSRP.

But the invoice is not always enough: That's because dealers sometimes get "dealer incentives" from manufacturers on slow-selling cars that reduce dealer cost. When we checked, a 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII was subject to a $2,000 dealer incentive, meaning a cagey buyer who had that information could gain major ammunition for price negotiations.

Not that there's any haggling at AutoSite. It refers purchasers to Microsoft's CarPoint site, which will arrange for them to be contacted by a "qualified sales consultant."

At CarPoint, the philosophy seems to be "if some information is good, more is better." Despite annoying graphics, tiny print, and a flashy delivery, the site was crammed with features and info. Easily navigating to meaty articles about safety, we learned that car size counts, but that some sport-utility vehicles are as unsafe as small cars because they roll so easily. The car reviews were less skimpy than those from competing sites, and a "compare" option allowed us to see the features of two vehicles side by side.

CarPoint also offers a buying service--which will refer you to a network of dealers that is said to offer "the most competitive price."

AutoVantage offers a wealth of information about auto safety, warranties, and car-rating services. But the main concern seems to be selling the opportunity to join NetMarket, the business that operates the site. A NetMarket membership card, we learned, would entitle us to discounts at 23,000 service locations, as well as unspecified help from a "new-car specialist."

      The only way to tell
      if a price is good
      is by comparing.

Old-timers abound
While the foregoing businesses largely are creatures of the Web, older firms also offer automotive help on the Web. For a $2.95 monthly Web site subscription, Consumer Reports offers access to the magazine's database on the repair history of used vehicles. Although this information can help new and used purchasers avoid lemons, we failed to click ourselves out of an endless loop during the sign-up, despite three years' experience working on the Web. A second effort, made almost a week later from a different computer, again told us that while trying to subscribe, we'd made "a request for information that's available only to site subscribers."

We didn't have such navigation problems on the next older-than-the-Web site. Auto-By-Tel, a giant of the virtual car business, says it's breathtakingly simple to buy, either via the Web or a toll-free phone number: "You specify what you want. You get a rock-bottom price, with no haggling. You pick up the car. You are done." As you enter the category of car, your price range, and desired equipment, the list of possibilities gradually narrows to just a few cars. After you select one and enter your name and address, the system will ask a dealer to contact you with a price.

Like Auto-By-Tel, AutoAdvisor, Inc. is available on the Web or by telephone. The company claims that because it receives all revenue from buyers, it offers unbiased advice. For $395, you can specify a particular car, and AutoAdvisor will ask five dealers in your area to deliver you quotes within five days. For $120 per hour, they'll give you a "10-minute negotiator" course or advice about the relative advantages of buying vs. leasing. If you're trapped in a dealer's closing room, the company even will sell you specific advice over the phone.

At AutoAdvisor, unlike some Web sites, all financing options are left to the buyer. That should benefit credit union members, who know that the best rates, and the most trustworthy service, are available at the credit union. Remember: Financing on the Web works--but for whom?

After surveying these Web sites, we had to conclude that gathering information and buying electronically can be as perilous as doing it the ol'-fashioned way. Sure, you might get a good deal. But the best way to distinguish a good deal from a bad one is to check the competition. And to do that, you'll need to get a price from a dealership (and endure the very haggling that the Web is supposed to avoid), or use a site that encourages competition, like AutoAdvisor.

The bottom line is this: It may be the Web, but it's still the car business. And in the car business, you're always on your own. If you're savvy and enjoy searching, you can find a lot of information on the Web. But for many shoppers, the Web is impersonal and confusing, and you may do better consulting your credit union's advisers. Their first loyalty is to you, the member, not to a business that specializes in selling cars.

In any case, just because it's whiz-bang cyber-'lectronic, don't assume that a "Web" deal is a good deal.

      Are you being
      subjected to
      subtle advertising?


Automobile Web Sites

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.