Web Informant # 182, 2 January 2000:
Buying a car online


Quote of the week:

"Communication has changed so rapidly in the last 20 years…. Email, which now sends data hurtling across vast distances at the speed of light, has replaced primitive forms of communication such as smoke signals, which sent data hurtling across vast distances at the speed of light." -- Steve Martin, writing in today's New York Times.

Yes, we all made it through the New Year intact, and even most of our computers are still running, to say nothing of the smoke signals. (A few of my older machines came up with the wrong dates but were easily corrected.) I trust you are all in similar or better circumstances.

The end of the year didn't stop me from making my biggest Internet purchase to date -- I bought a new car online, using the CarsDirect.com buying service. It was easier than dickering with the dealer directly, and I got a great price for my car. They even delivered it to my doorstep one Saturday morning, much to the amusement of my neighbors.

If you are good at negotiating with car dealers or don't mind the verbal abuse and psychodrama ("Let me check with my sales manager…"), you can probably get a somewhat better price in person at the dealer than by going to CarsDirect's web site. But I'm glad I skipped the Department of Abuse this time around and went with the web to buy my car.

CarsDirect has a great premise: you pick out exactly the car you want, down to the various options and body/interior colors. Then you get a no-haggle price, which they claim is below overall sticker but less than what the majority of people would pay. If you like the price, you agree and leave a deposit on your credit card. They find you a car through their network of dealers and then you can either go to the dealer to pick up your car or else arrange to have the car delivered. The site is fairly simple to navigate, and you have complete control over the various options and extras.

There are many car buying web sites these days. What I liked about CarsDirect is that you see the price before you provide any personal information -- such as your phone number or credit card. This is a very different process from say, Cars.com, where you first pick a dealer and then your information is transmitted to them before you can get a price quote. If the dealer doesn't call you after getting notified by Cars.com (which is what happened to me), then you have to go back and find another dealer. That's a pain and isn't much of an improvement over the offline process.

Before my wife and I decided on what model we wanted to buy, we still went to the dealer to test drive a few cars. When I asked if they could sell me the car I wanted, I was told it would take a few weeks to find the right car. Interestingly, CarsDirect.com had located my car within 24 hours. Perhaps they have a bigger pool to choose from.

What went wrong? Well, the process isn't completely online: you still need to receive a fax with the contract, sign that and return it to them. And there were numerous phone calls as I ironed out problems with the company. At one point, they had found me the wrong car: it had $800 more options than I wanted. And when the car was delivered, it was a few dollars cheaper than I expected: the folks in the New York office were still figuring out how license and other fees are factored into the final price. Still, it was far less stressful than my previous experiences with a dealership.

Before you go buy your car on or off-line, you should do some research and know first what you want and second what it will cost. That is just good basic consumerism and knowing what the dealer pays for your car is important information when you begin the negotiation process if you do choose an offline dealer. There are plenty of places to get good car information now on the Net: I liked Yahoo's Cars site, which includes side-by-side comparison of options on different makes and models, along with links to other places such as Kelley Blue Book to determine the value of your current car. Yahoo contains detailed information about the dealer invoice of many cars, something that used to be the province of a few offline places. Yahoo also has free online classifieds for you to sell your car, but my ad never generated any leads and I eventually went the old-fashioned way of using a local newspaper ad to sell my previous car. And no mention of car shopping sites would be complete without the NPR radio personalities' Cartalk Car-O-Scope, which will predict whether you and your spouse have the right personalities for your current or future car.

Now, I have bought exactly three cars in my entire life. The first time, at age 30, I was literally thrown out of the dealer's showroom claiming my initial offer was too insultingly low to even be considered. So you can see that this is something I don't enjoy doing, and so when the time came to get a new car, I wasn't looking forward to the process. CarsDirect made it a whole lot easier, and I hope they will be around when it is time to buy my next car.

Self-promotions dep't

The current issue of Internet World contains two articles I wrote for its special forward-thinking outlook section. The first one, "The Holy Grail: Wide Pipes -- Sites want speed. Vendors have ways to help them get it," concerns developments in Internet infrastructure that will improve browsing and applications performance. The second piece, " IP Wherever You Are -- It isn't just cell phones that'll be connected," talks about developments in connecting more than computers to the Internet. Both are available through links on my page below.

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David Strom
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