My friend John said the wisest thing I've heard about the oft-painful experience of buying a new car.
"We buy a new car once in every five, seven or maybe 10 years," he said. "The car salespeople sell maybe three a week. They're better at it than we are."
Anyone who has ever walked into a new car salesroom knows that only too well. But now the Internet can help level the field a bit. The two weapons you have at your disposal are information and informed opinions--items the big I can supply in abundance.
A good place to start when narrowing down your choice of models is the newsgroups, also known as the Usenet. This gigantic bulletin board, which predates the far more popular World Wide Web, covers just about every subject matter of interest one can imagine, from needlepoint to kinky sex. Not surprisingly, there are numerous Usenet groups devoted to automobiles.
For example, you can visit alt.autos.gm, alt.autos.ford or rec.autos.makers.honda to join in discussions about cars made by those companies. Sometimes the groups get specific down to the actual model, as in rec.autos.makers.ford.mustang or rec.autos.makers.saturn.
In these newsgroups, you can likely find people who own the car in which you're interested. You can post messages that ask questions about performance, options, gas mileage, etc. And most of the time, you'll get multiple, highly opinionated answers.
Don't be surprised if you also attract the attention of brokers who will e-mail you with offers that they can get you a great price. Doesn't hurt to listen--one of them might come up with a good deal. But, also don't be surprised if they try applying a digital version of the same kind of pressure you might find on a car sales floor.
Over on the Web, you can browse sites maintained by every major automaker. On the best of these sites you can find, in addition to the hype, basic info about each model--engine type and size, standard equipment and available colors. You can also find sticker prices, but unless the car model in which you're interested is attracted to a no-haggle policy (Saturn is one example), that figure is only a benchmark.
At http://www.kbb.com, you'll find the Web headquarters of the Kelley "Blue Book," the bible of car pricing information. This advertiser-supported, well-designed site--featuring lots of clip art to give it a 1950s look--provides current information on the invoice price of almost every available model, domestic and foreign.
It also provides a link to a trade-in calculator. You input the make, model and mileage of your trade-in, check off what special features or options you have and then pick a category describing its condition. The site then determines an estimated, trade-in price you should expect to get.
A Kelley competitor, Edmunds publications, had some outdated information on its site--http://www.edmund.com. Its invoice prices, for example, did not always reflect recent increases.
But it does include a service that can be a huge help to car buyers.
Auto-by-Tel is the closest you can come, currently, to actually making a new car purchase via the Internet. Clicking onto its page, you fill in a form that asks you for detailed information about the car you want--make, model, body type, options, colors, etc.
A day or two later, a local dealership associated with Auto-by-tel is supposed to tell you if the car you want is in stock and to quote you a price, right over the phone.
I know people who used the service, who said they were quoted an attractive price. And they found the process of making the deal far more straightforward than the norm.
So, chalk up another plus for the Internet. If it can do nothing more than make the purchase of a new car a more humane process, it's worth a lot of the hassles that come with it.
* Cyburbia's e-mail address is email@example.com.