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Car Shopping on the Internet

by Joanne Brickman

Shopping on the Internet has become almost commonplace for many Web surfers. You can buy books, vitamins, airline tickets and much more without ever leaving home, but are you aware that you can also shop for a car on the Internet? 
       Some sites boast that you can actually purchase a vehicle online.  In truth, most state laws require new vehicle sales to be processed through a dealer, so it continues to be necessary to visit a dealership at some point, even if it's simply to take delivery of your car.  NOTE:  Regardless of how sophisticated Web shopping becomes, you should always do a thorough, personal test drive of any new vehicle you plan to buy.  To date, the only place to do that is at a dealership.
       Meanwhile, the Internet is flooded with car buying and/or shopping sites that provide information and knowledge to make you a smart, efficient car shopper.  You just need to know where to find them and how to use them to your advantage.
       Time, then, for a basic primer in surfing the Web for car shopping help. It's easier to understand the barrage of sites if we break them into four categories:  information-only, referrals, middlemen, and direct sales.

INFORMATION-ONLY

  • One the most helpful informational sites is Kelley Blue Book.  Here you'll find every vehicle and configuration of options that are possible to buy on vehicles you are shopping.  The all-important dealer invoice pricing and all other information is free on this site. 
  • Consumer Reports  is another useful site to explore, although there's a subscription fee required for many of the reports you'd most like to see. Subscribers pay $3.95 monthly or an annual fee of $24 ($19 if you are a CR magazine print subscriber). 
  • IntelliChoice  is a well-respected site that contains, among other useful information, a "best value in their class" feature.  The site also offers free helps like a side-by-side comparison of four models and the current list of consumer rebates and dealer incentives. They also provide a complete New Auto Purchasing Report on the vehicle of your choice for a $4.95 charge.
  • Edmunds, a favored auto authority since before the Web, has an excellent informational site.  As do nearly all informational sites, the information on each vehicle detailed on the Edmunds site includes the "dealer invoice" price.  But at Edmunds, you get more.  They also include "dealer holdback" information on each vehicle.  Dealer holdback is a percentage of the MSRP or invoice of a new vehicle that is paid to the dealer by the manufacturer to assist with the dealership's financing of the vehicle. It is almost always non-negotiable.  Knowing the holdback, however, can sometimes be a negotiating tool.  Be sure you also check out the automata sites (use a search engine).  Every automata has one or more.  These are excellent places to get vehicle specifics and a good pictorial look at the vehicles you're considering.


REFERRALS
Some sites are mainly "lead generators."  They allow you to identify what kind of vehicle you want to buy and configure it to your needs.  That information is routed to a dealer (who may actually pay for the sales lead).  The dealer will typically call you within 24 hours.  Referral sites include autobytel.com, autovantage.com, autoweb.com, cars.com, carpoint.com, and more. 

MIDDLEMEN
These sites are basically online brokers.  They consummate the transaction online, guarantee the price to the consumer, then farm the sale out to their dealer network. CarsDirect.com and DriveOff.com are example of  middlemen sites. There's much to be said for a middleman handling your new car deal, but since there's no competitive bidding on price, you don't really know you're getting the best price.  Plus, in signing up for the service, you have to make a credit card deposit without knowing for sure that you will accept the car that a middleman finds. 

DIRECT PURCHASES
Manufacturers maintain sites like gm.com and gmbuypower.com, ford.com and toyota.com.  They're fine if you're a brand loyalist.  But they're not very objective.

There's a little more objectivity on sites like InvoiceDealers.com, who quotes competitive prices online from an alliance of 800 dealers nationwide, or Autonationdirect.com, a spin-off of the AutoNation superstores and comprised of the family of dealers the company has been acquiring. 

CarOrder.com is a new entry in the foray.  They've been test-marketing their system for a number of months and are presently in the process of buying one hundred U.S. auto dealerships and converting them into e-dealer franchises.

Explore all these Internet sites, but remember that car buying on the Net is still in its infancy, and ultimately, buying online may not be up to the standards that you might expect.  What is important is the information these sites provide and the ways they can make the car buying process easier for you.

 

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