A new vehicle purchase can be both fun and daunting. With so many vehicles to choose from, options to consider, price ranges to determine, dealerships to find, and negotiating tips; the glow of that new car can start to fade pretty quickly with all the work and stress involved in finding your next vehicle.

Don't worry though. To help with your next car purchase, AOL Autos has developed this two part series to show you how to research your next car online; saving you time, money and hopefully a little frustration.

This first part of the series will focus on the importance of doing research online, before you head out to the dealership. Part two will discuss ways to find the best vehicle pricing including incentives and rebates, financing and insurance; as well as talk briefly about test-driving the vehicle and what to bring to the dealership

Beginning the Research Process

To stress the importance of online vehicle research, we talked with Tara Baukus Mello, veteran automotive journalist and Senior Writer and Lead Market Analyst at NADAguides.com (of the National Automobile Dealers Association). She explained how important it is to be an educated consumer and how the Internet is helping car shoppers enhance their buying knowledge.

"I think a smart shopper today is going to do all his or her research online before they set foot on a dealer's lot for the first time," she said. Instead of taking the time to walk into dealership after dealership and pick up brochures, it's best to spend your time online figuring out which vehicle is best for you.

"Because most shoppers need to do this research in their spare time, it's a good rule of thumb for consumers to plan at least 30 days to research the vehicles their interested in online." Baukus Mello recommended visiting an automaker's site as well as third-party sites like AOL Autos, NADAguides.com, NHTSA and FuelEconomy.gov to learn more about a vehicle. Sites like this can help educate you on valuable information about pricing, crash ratings, gas mileage and vehicle warranties.

How to Do it on AOL Autos:

Step 1: Go to AOL Autos New Cars page to select a vehicle to research.

Step 2: Use one of the available categories: Make, Style, Type or Price to find the vehicle(s) you're looking for. This can be helpful if you know how much you want to spend, but don't know what cars fit in your price range; or you know that you want a hybrid, but want to see all the choices available in this segment.

Step 3: After you've selected a vehicle segment, a listing of one more vehicles that meet your specific criteria will be displayed.

Step 4: Select which vehicle you're interested in to read an overview of the vehicle, get detailed pricing, safety and option package specs, find professional and user-generated reviews and see photos and videos.

Step 5: Choose the compare option to view the top competitors of your chosen vehicle side-by-side. You can also compare the same model to previous years, view a previous vehicle you were researching, or select another vehicle to compare it to.

Comparing Vehicles

Baukus Mello also stressed the importance of investing time into your car purchase. "When you're spending $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, $80,000 this is not, 'Let me drive to the local dealer's on Saturday morning and drive away Saturday afternoon.' You're spending a lot of money regardless of the price you're spending."

One way to invest your time well before going to the dealer is comparing makes and models, prices, features, etc. online. You'll get the most out of you comparison if you select several makes, models and trims to compare. Doing this online will save you time when you go to the dealer and you'll already know exactly what you're looking for. In addition to third party sites, many dealership websites also allow you to search their inventory to see what they have.

"To me this is the power of the internet," Baukus Mello said. "Being able to drill down to know exactly what you want and to arrive on the dealer's lot and say, 'This is what I'm interested in, I'm also shopping for this competitor; talk to me.'"

Having this research already done before you walk into the dealership not only saves you time, but shows the salesperson that you know what you're looking for, which can help keep the vehicle buying process on track for both you and the dealer.

How to Do it on AOL Autos:

Step 1: There are two ways to being your comparison. The first way is if you have already chosen a vehicle as outlined in the previous section. If you have done that, then look for the compare options on the left side of the page. If you haven't already selected a vehicle you can go directly to the AOL Autos Compare Cars page to start the process.

Step 2: If you had already selected a car and want to enter the comparison page from this area, then the first option available to you is called "top competitors." This automatically populates the comparison tool with your vehicle and compares it side-by-side with its top competitors in the segment.

The next option available to you is to "compare across years" which allows you to view the same model of vehicle across different years to see if the differences.

The "other cars" option allows you to compare any type/s of vehicle/s. It's perfect for narrowing down all the different vehicle types on the market.

The last option, "recently viewed," allows you to compare all your past research side-by-side. If you looked at an SUV, then thought about buying a sport wagon, but realized a sedan might be more economical; you'll be able to compare them all at the same time with just one click.

If you entered the compare cars page directly, then you can select any vehicles you want to begin the process.

You can now view the competitors warranty, find out what options come standard on each vehicle, compare engine power and fuel economy; everything down to very stereo wattage in each vehicle and even see the difference in styling by viewing photos.

Finding the Right Dealership

After you've educated yourself on every aspect of the vehicles you're considering, it's time to start thinking about where you're going to purchase your vehicle. There are still a few steps in the car buying process that are best done in person. Test-driving is one obvious aspect (which we'll cover in Part II) and finding the right dealership is the second.

Although some dealerships will do all the paperwork without you having to come in, Baukus Mello said, "In my opinion, I'm not actually sure that that's the best approach." She said that although you can save time online, it's better to physically go in and establish a relationship with the dealership.

"Introducing you to service people, walking through the dealership, introducing you to managers, getting a feel for service advisors; that's very educational to someone who's new to a particular dealership. And establishing that relationship is important when you want to bring that vehicle in for service later." She also mentioned that many times the best way to find a good dealership is to simply ask friends or family about their car buying experiences.

There are about 20,000 new car dealerships in North America and 92% of them are members of NADA. This membership gives them access to salesperson certifications through NADA in areas such as sales skills, communication techniques with costumers, ethical behavior, and education about state laws.

"Folks who are selling vehicles in dealerships today are not really salespeople," Baukus Mello said, "they are sales consultants." She said that the salesperson certification process is anextension of that concept of being an educated sales consultant who can help people choose the right vehicle for them.

"Of course they're going to play up their product, but they may point out things about the competitor's product that you didn't realize, and that's good information to have," she said.

Spending a little time online researching the vehicles you're considering, comparing them side by side, and then finding a good dealership are all ways to make your next vehicle purchase a whole lot smoother.

In Part II of the series, we'll cover all the aspects of pricing, financing, insurance, and just about anything else related to paying for your next vehicle.

Next Page: Online Car Buying - Part II



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