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Car shopping on the information superhighway

Auto-By-Tel is one of the many online car buying services available   

July 13, 1998
Web posted at: 11:40 AM EDT

by Angela Navarrete

(IDG) -- They say you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of car they drive. If this is true, I'm in a lot of trouble. My tiny 1992 VW Fox, when I bought it, said that I was a practical person who valued function over form. Now it says that I'm the kind of person who's late to work a lot. This fuse box on wheels shudders, wheezes, drifts to the left, and emits a high-pitched whine whenever I hit 15 miles per hour.

I finally admitted that it was time to get a car that captured the real me: stylish, sporty, practical-yet-cutting-edge--and late to work a lot. But as anyone who's survived the trauma of car shopping knows, checking out cars, lining up financing, and choosing a dealer are only slightly less painful than enduring a root canal without anesthesia.

So what's a woman with very little time, a low tolerance for car salespeople, and a lust for the new 1998 Honda CR-Vs to do? Cruise the Web, of course. Auto sites promise to help you find local dealers and get price quotes with minimal haggling; they also provide helpful info like safety records, blue book values, and buying tips. I hoped that the Web could help me swing a deal on a new set of wheels. And if the new-car gods weren't smiling on me, I'd settle for a used Honda Civic. So with high hopes and four-wheel dreams, I took five auto sites for a test drive.

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Dealer's Choice

I started at Microsoft's CarPoint, a well-organized, easy-to-use site with lots of information on new cars. After downloading a plug-in, I was even treated to a "surround video" of my dream car, which I must confess wasn't nearly as satisfying as plunking down in a bucket seat and taking in that new-car smell.

When it came to actually buying a car, however, CarPoint stalled. I entered my zip code and was given a choice of two local Honda dealers (CarPoint's network has more than 2000 dealers nationwide). I picked one, typed in the options I wanted, and hit the send button. I could almost feel the steering wheel in my hands. A few hours later, I got an e-mail from the dealer, telling me they didn't have the car in stock. So far, I was unimpressed.

Undaunted, I sent a request to the second dealer, who phoned the next day. When I pressed him for a quote over the phone (that's what this is all about, right?), he said that the asking price was $23,000, but he could offer the car to me for $21,545. For him to go lower, I'd have to walk into the dealership, checkbook in hand. I reminded him that I knew the dealer invoice price for the EX model with a manual transmission was $18,375, and that I wouldn't pay more than 5 percent over invoice (about $19,300). Ten minutes later he called back and offered to sell me the car for my price. So I got the deal I wanted, but it certainly wasn't haggle-free.

Since I didn't want to give that guy a commission, I decided to check out CarPoint's Used Car Classifieds. After downloading another plug-in and searching for a 1995 Civic, I was rewarded with links to very basic Web pages that listed each dealer's name and address, along with a few details about the car. Apparently, I was supposed to print this out and take it with me to the car lot. I had less information than I'd get from a newspaper ad, with more hassle. For this I need a computer?

Automatic Transmission

My next stop,, was even easier to navigate than CarPoint, and offered a broad array of resources. But as with CarPoint, it took me two tries to get results. AutoWeb listed five local dealers, so I picked the closest one and filled out the form. The site also asked about the car I was trading in. I was surprised at how freely I volunteered personal (not to mention financial) data. I get leery when an overeager salesperson leans on me for information, but when a computer asks, I might as well have taken truth serum.

I never heard from the dealer, but I did receive a follow-up from, which promised to resubmit my request. In the meantime I sent a query to one of the other dealers. Within 24 hours, I got a quote of $19,900 for an EX model with automatic transmission, a mere 4 percent over the invoice price of $19,100. If I hadn't been so dedicated to my research, I might have whipped out my wallet then and there. But duty called, so I kept surfing.

Unlike CarPoint's, AutoWeb's used car area lets you search by dealer or by car. Once I found a car, it was easy to get its specs and e-mail the dealer for more details. The site also carries ads from private parties (another feature CarPoint lacks). AutoWeb offers financing, insurance through State Farm, and an AAA-like Roadside Rescue program (basic membership $19.95) that you can join whether or not you use the site to buy a car.

Easy Rider

From the moment I pulled into the Auto-By-Tel page, I knew I was in for a smooth ride. The interface was more streamlined than the others, with more links to other useful sites like Intellichoice, Edmund's (a well-known Net resource), AutoSite, and Kelley Blue Book. And the site offers pricing and specifications on just about every new car out there, in addition to the requisite dealership referral service.

An hour after I sent my purchase request, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail from a local dealer who had an LX model in stock and gave me a quote of $18,744. At 7 percent of the dealer invoice, the markup was higher than what the other sites had turned up, but the quote was still below the suggested retail price.

I realized I hadn't thought about how I was going to actually pay for a new car. So just for kicks, I applied for financing through Auto-By-Tel, which sent my application to three lending institutions. The next morning, Auto-By-Tel came through with financing from Chase Manhattan bank. It's a good thing I got myself under control--the car was ready, the money was there, and a simple phone call would have had the papers drawn up and sent over. Luckily, I managed to rein myself in and kept looking.

Auto-By-Tel also offers used cars for sale through its member dealerships, and there are plenty of perks you'd never find on your own. Each car listed has passed an inspection and comes with a three-day money-back guarantee and a 3000-mile limited warranty. Try getting that through a newspaper ad.

Webside Service

When I first cruised by Consumers Car Club, I wasn't impressed. It seemed to provide the same information and dealership referrals as the other sites. But when I looked more closely, I discovered several services that set it apart.

For example, I could hire a Personal Shopper to do all the work for me. Armed with my choice of car (and $149), the Car Club rep obtains quotes from three local dealers--who are expected, since they know they're competing, to offer a low price.

Amazingly, it worked. The very same day, I had an offer on an LX of $18,920--a mere 3.8 percent over the invoice price of $18,220. Beyond getting me a great deal, the rep explained and priced options such as aluminum wheels and antilock brakes. Had I accepted the offer, Car Club would have sent me the paperwork, coordinated the financing, secured insurance quotes, registered with the DMV, and even arranged delivery--the whole enchilada. Car Club can even order some cars directly from the manufacturer, bringing the price down further.

Though Car Club's used car classifieds section is somewhat less impressive, it isn't bad. It lists cars sold by private parties and dealers, but the pickings are slim. I searched for any 5-year-old car being sold within 50 miles for an asking price under $20,000, and found only nine. But Car Club makes up for this with other programs that take a lot of the worry out of buying a used car. For $89 (less than most mechanics charge) Car Club will send a mechanic to inspect the car and give you a detailed report, so you know what you're getting into. Another $12.50 gets you a faxed report on how many owners the car has had, whether it's had water or frame damage, and more. Car Club also offers a protection coverage package, which is similar to an extended warranty. The price varies with the car's age and mileage, but for a 1995 Honda Civic with 40,000 miles, three years or 45,000 miles of comprehensive protection costs $781.

By now that great price for the brand-new Honda CR-V was burning a hole in my brain. Then I did the math and realized the payment wouldn't leave me much money for luxuries like, say, food. It would have to be a used car or no wheels at all.

The Newest Model

Fortunately, a new site called AutoConnect specializes in used car listings. It's a partnership between Manheim, the world's largest car auction company, and ADP Dealer Services, which provides computer inventory services to more than 18,000 car lots. Any dealership on that ADP network can put inventory online at the click of a button, and the site also features cars sold by private parties. The result? Listings for 500,000-plus used cars, far more than any other site.

Although AutoConnect was not fully operational at press time, the early version looked promising, with the usual buying tips, car specs, and reviews plus a slick search engine that makes it easy to navigate its massive selection. The site will be up and running by the time you read this.

Meanwhile, I'm too broke to buy the machine of my dreams and haven't found a used one I can live with. I guess I'm stuck with the whinemobile for now. But if I ever do get the cash together, I'll know where to look, what to get, and how to drive a good bargain--without ever setting foot on a car lot or getting chomped by some sales shark.

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