Katherine Boehret

Navigating the Web to Purchase a Car

A few weeks ago, I received a dreaded phone call at 8:30 a.m. telling me he wasn’t going to make it. The “he” in this case was my car, and the bearer of bad news was my mechanic. My 1994 Saab bit the dust when its timing belt broke, and after discussions about the cost of the repair versus the value of the car, I accepted the fact that I’d need to start looking at buying another vehicle.

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I headed online to start researching (I was looking for a used car) but was overwhelmed by an avalanche of information. Everyone seemed to have something to say about cars, whether in blogs, community forums, editorial reviews, Kelley Blue Book values, Carfax reports or local dealer sites. As I discussed my findings with friends and family, more people than not were surprised to hear about the variety of research and price comparisons available online.

This week’s column is an overview of sites that may help you or someone you know browse for a new or used car on the Web. I used sites ranging from trusted resources like ConsumerReports.org to search engine tools like Yahoo Autos. This column can’t possibly mention every car-searching resource on the Web; rather, it’s just a taste of what’s available.

Edmunds.com and ConsumerReports.org both feature informative data on a number of new and used vehicles. Edmunds is a free site specifically geared toward cars, including an online magazine for enthusiasts called Inside Line and a Web forum for discussions about automobiles called CarSpace. I used various tools on Edmunds.com, including one that estimates the true cost to own a specific car over time. I especially enjoyed reading an article titled “Confessions of a Car Salesman,” which proved uncanny in predicting a range of tricks and techniques the salespeople used when I first visited a car dealership.

Edmunds offers a four-step pricing system, which includes getting quotes from dealers, and a payment calculator, which estimates monthly payments. Edmunds teams up with AutoTrader.com to help perform searches for certified pre-owned or used cars online.

Consumer Reports covers products as well as cars but keeps much of its most useful data behind a Web-site subscription, which costs $26 annually or $5.95 monthly (magazine subscribers can pay a discounted price of $19 a year). You need this subscription to access CR’s respected ratings and certain sections of its Web forums. These ratings were helpful to me, as they assessed numerous aspects of specific car models, including trouble spots by year, performance, safety and fuel economy.

CR also offers valuable lists such as “All Recommended Cars,” “Best and Worst Used Cars” and “Reliable Used Cars by Price.” A car-buying calculator is an asset to this site that helps you decide whether it would be smarter to buy or lease a vehicle.

Google, Yahoo and AOL all present special search-results pages when you search for a specific car for sale, using drop-down menus and various ways to sort results. Google Base for automobiles, found by selecting “Vehicles” from www.google.com/base, is a list of data submitted to Google. Drop-down menus help broaden or narrow results by sorting the data according to certain attributes, such as make or price. Vehicle-search results can be viewed in one of three formats: List View, Table View or Map View — an illustration of each car’s location in relationship to a Zip Code. I found Table View most useful because it organized data in smart, spreadsheet-like displays so I could quickly skim through columns listing price, color, amenities and mileage.

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But not all car searches within Google Base returned the same drop-down-menu options for sorting. In a few instances, I couldn’t sort my search results by model year. Google Base does show the date on which each car was listed.

Yahoo Autos, found at www.autos.yahoo.com, teamed up with Cars.com to offer richer content, including a Car Finder feature that helps people narrow down what type of new car they might like according to price, driving style and fuel (type and economy). Yahoo even tries to answer car questions with its Yahoo Answers Q&A tool, which lets people submit questions. I found user reviews on this site, as well as expert reviews provided by NewCarTestDrive.com, an auto-review site.

The used-car section in Yahoo Autos reminded me of Google with its drop-down menus and results that displayed in list or map views. List view shows plenty of information in one glance, including an image of the car for sale and the number of additional available photos. From this list, users can link directly to view or order Carfax reports or email the dealer, saving time wasted on excess mouse clicks and browsing.

AOL Autos, found at http://autos.aol.com, does a nice job of integrating Web 2.0 features such as pop-up menus that appear within a page rather than in an entirely new Web page. Vehicle-search results are found by entering a few criteria for a new or used car, and used-car results can be further narrowed by adding or subtracting desired specifics listed on the far left of the screen. Some specs include model type, engine, year or extras like heated seats or a sunroof.

This site can also condense numerous used-car listings into one graph that illustrates car prices in relationship to mileage or year. Selecting any point on the graph reveals a short description of a vehicle’s location, price and mileage. For new cars, AOL Autos offers lengthy expert reviews from NewCarTestDrive.com, as well as user reviews.

Both Yahoo Autos and AOL Autos walk users through steps to get price quotes from dealers for new cars.

Carfax.com provides car-history reports using vehicle-identification numbers, or VINs. For a $30 fee, used-car buyers can use Carfax.com for 30 days. This report shows a vehicle’s history such as if it was a rental or not, how many different owners it had, how long each owner possessed the vehicle and where it came from. Tips pop up within these reports, including one that warned me about “curbstoning,” a term that describes an individual without a dealer’s license looking to sell a number of cars by posing as a private seller.

As can be expected, many newspaper Web sites offer automobile sections that display digitized classified ads, so be sure to check your local paper’s Web site.

At the end of the day, test-driving a car will be a true test as to whether or not you like it — no matter how much research you’ve done online. But knowing your stuff before you visit a dealership can save money and time.

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