Technology has already transformed the buying process. Most of today's new-car buyers spend at least part of the shopping process on the computer, taking trips to "virtual showrooms" and gleaning valuable information from a variety of Internet sites.
Nearly every automaker has a Web site brimming with product information. Some entertain and inform. Many let you "build" your vehicle of choice, get retail prices, and even apply for a loan and make an appointment with a dealership. Others are little more than online sales brochures.
More than 94 percent of the nation's 21,640 new-car dealers have a Web site, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. On most, consumers can browse new- and used-vehicle inventories.
Generally, online buying sites enter into financial agreements with a number of auto dealers around the country that pay a fee to be a part of the service. Web sites transmit purchase requests to their participating dealers who respond with prices for that particular model. This means that if you use an alternate buying service, you'll probably still need to go to a dealership for a test drive, to complete the transaction (which may include the usual sales pitch for rustproofing, service contracts, option packages, and other add-ons), and to take delivery.
Some people do purchase vehicles directly over the Internet, without setting foot in a dealership, but they're comparative rarities. Analysts don't foresee this trend growing substantially -- especially since a test drive is essential. If you've already driven the type of car that interests you, however, it is possible to arrange all details of a deal without ever leaving the computer.
Web shopping is convenient, but research shows the price you receive over the Internet may not be the lowest available. Shop around-online and/or in person-to get the best deal.
Remember, much of the preliminary work of buying a new car can be done online, but there is no replacement for spending some time walking dealer lots. While a resource like the Internet or a book can prepare you to go shopping, there's no substitute for touching and driving a vehicle you are considering.