inding information about cars on the World Wide Web was supposed to eliminate confusion, the Achilles' heel of buying wheels. Better yet, actually buying a car on the Web was supposed to carve costs to the bone.

But five years after the Web started becoming a fact of life, the fact is that confusion and shady dealing may be as common in cyberspace as in the brick-and-mortar world of car dealerships.

Finding a good deal on the Web seems just as elusive as finding a matching hubcap for your 1965 Pontiac GTO. You know one is out there somewhere—if you're willing to pay the price. But you may have to do an enormous amount of legwork to get the right one at a good price.
     Taking in the sites

The good
Unquestionably, the Web offers more information than you possibly could find at dealers. Surf long enough, and you can find information about option packages, specifications, inventory, and invoice prices.

In a spectacular example of quick access to information, Kelley Blue Book (all URLs are listed below) returned a price for a specified used car just three minutes after we began loading the home page.

Comparisons are another strong point. If you've narrowed your search to a couple of cars, in five minutes will crank out a comparison of two cars in terms of prices, features, warranty, and safety information. Also helpful, the site estimates maintenance and repair cost over five years. On the down side, it was unclear who provided the estimate, and we could not print that handy comparison.

While many of the first auto-sale Web sites are essentially front ends for affiliated dealers—with all the problems that implies—a couple of new approaches have surfaced in the past year. For example, shows dealer invoices, manufacturers suggested retail prices (MSRPs), and a price quote in just a few minutes.

Knowing the invoice price is—or was—supposedly a good negotiating tactic for dealing with dealers, but the offering price was $10 more than the MSRP! Furthermore, the fine print warned that there was no guarantee that the model would be in stock, or that the dealer was even still participating with

In a second approach that theoretically would stimulate competition, bragged that users could "start your own price war." That would have been a lot more helpful if the brand we selected had been available in our area. It wasn't. Nevertheless, the site took 96 seconds to load on a 56 k modem to a Mac 7200/75.
    Confusion may be
    as common
    in cyberspace
    as at car dealers.

The bad
Car-buying and information sites have other drawbacks. Like too many commercial sites on the World Wide Wait, they're slow to load. The interesting consumer-information site took 56 seconds. But that was Indy-500 speed compared with, which took three minutes, 45 seconds to load all those sexy pictures of Detroit iron.

Many sites don't fit the screen, requiring you to scroll left to right, possibly forcing your computer to reload the screen and maybe download files again.

At a more basic level, the sites tend to be confusing. Is their purpose to sell cars, to inform you, or both? Do they represent themselves, the dealer, or you in the transaction?

Even solid numbers can be perplexing:, for example, listed a price and features for a popular minivan much faster than many other sites. But was the price an MSRP? An invoice price? An average actual sales price? An offering price? There was no indication—and the confusion was all the greater because two base prices were listed for the same car!
    is the Achilles' heel
    of buying wheels.

The ugly
Auto Web sites are rife with conflicts of interest and heavily reliant on advertising from companies whose products they're reviewing. During our visit, showed ads for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. How does that affect the review of the 2002 Ford Explorer that happened to be appearing on the site? It's hard to tell, because it's hard to know who publishes the site and what its corporate affiliations or policies of independence may be.

Similarly, mere coincidence might—or might not—explain why (160 seconds) ran two photos and three reviews of Audis—including this teaser: "The convertible in which to be seen is also a driver's car." Could some behind-the-scenes deal explain the over-the-top coverage of a minor brand?

The sites may not sell what you want to buy. For example, listed one Honda Civic, but no Pontiac 6000s or Chevy S10 or K10 pickups, within 30 miles of our test market. Since each search takes at least a minute, you can end up wasting a lot of time with sites that lack local coverage.

And the features don't always work: (90 seconds), for example, had an intriguing option to start a live conversation with a 'droid at headquarters. Naturally, we pressed the button, only to learn that the conversation only works with Windows. And speaking of futility, we waited five minutes for details about a Honda Odyssey minivan from Autobytel's inventory. It never appeared.

Things worked better at (90 seconds), which gave us a quote in another 90 seconds. But to get the quote, we had to decide whether our new Caddy should be painted "polo green" or "white diamond."

This raises another concern. Despite the Web's ability to convey information, color is trouble. Screens and color printers won't render colors accurately, so there's no guarantee that "nightmare blue" or "mushroom-cloud orange" on the screen will match the actual upholstery in your new DeSoto.

Whether or not you visit the dealer to see the wheels and kick the tires, you wind up dealing with a dealer anyway., for example, routes requests to dealers, with whom you'll have to negotiate. In general, that seems little better than visiting dealers to start with—especially considering that many sites forbid you to haggle with the dealer.

    At a basic level,
    the sites are

The advice
Home & Family Finance Online is not the only publication curious about cars and cyberspace. An indication that there's more flash than substance came from a research team of The Economist magazine, which recently reported that unit marketing costs at some Web sites equal the car's sticker price.

For its April 2000 issue Consumer Reports magazine asked 1,056 online buyers to prowl auto Web sites. Only 35% of buyers got a price within 48 hours—while 11% had technical glitches. Finally, even though most people who buy on the Web presumably want to bypass dealers, 22% of buyers were told that the dealer would calculate the price!

Speaking of the bottom line, the performance of on-Web car sales is underwhelming: A recent survey found that while 60% of car buyers do some research on the Web, and 17% go to the Web intending to buy, only 1% actually buy on the Web.

So what is a buyer to do? When it comes to information, the Web may be no more biased than any other source—car magazines, after all, are also chock-a-block with auto advertising.

But if you want to use the Web to improve your negotiating position, you may want to spend some money. For $12, Consumer Reports will reveal a vehicle's actual wholesale price, taking into account the dealer holdback and other incentives that can reduce the actual cost. Many Web sites will give you the invoice price, but unless you know the true cost, you are bargaining from ignorance.

When it comes to cars, the Web has changed everything—and nothing. The smartest advice remains this: Deal with someone you trust. Many credit unions have car-buying services that offer great deals—and some recourse if you wind up less than delighted.

One last thought: We hope your new wheels drive more smoothly than some of the Web sites we visited!
    Vehicle comparisons
    are a strong point
    on the Web.

Taking in the sites

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.