All of the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) and invoice pricing now available online make purchase negotiations more transparent and less time-consuming than in years past. This time saved can be used to find the best service provider in your area. While the purchase is a one-time transaction, ongoing vehicle service and maintenance is needed for as long as you own your car or truck. Make sure that the dealer who sells you that new sports car at a rock-bottom price doesn’t have rock-bottom customer satisfaction ratings to match.

So even though you are here on to gather independent research and to shop for that shiny new driveway accessory, at the end of the process, “you still have to go somewhere to pick it up,” said Paul Simon, sales manager of BMW of Manhattan. What's more, you'll need to return to a franchised dealer for any of the free services and maintenance that some luxury automakers offer with the vehicles they sell.

Robert Krughoff, president of the nonprofit Consumers' Checkbook -- which operates the CarBargains vehicle-buying service -- points out that any dealership that carries your brand can service your car. “You don’t have to have any connection with the dealership that sold you the car,” he points out.

While it’s not necessary for you to bring your car in for warranty-covered maintenance to the same dealership where you bought it, keep in mind that some dealers might extend preferential services to regulars that aren’t offered to occasional customers.

In fact, web shoppers should even expect some low price quotes to come from distant dealers, because the dealers recognize that they won't shoulder any customer care costs after the sale. “[Dealers] can shoot you a lower price, because they know they're not from [the customer’s] area, so they're not going to have to provide all of the extra services," according to Jamie Harrison, Internet manager of Prestige Acura in Santa Rosa, Calif.

That's one reason why Harrison’s dealership extends its Prestige Preferred Customer Program only to people who purchase from Prestige. “It costs us money to do all of those extra things,” like loan cars to regulars who bring in their vehicles for service, she said. “It's our thanks to people who do business with us. People who try to save a few hundred dollars [by buying elsewhere] and then expect us to pay extra to take care of them aren't realistic.”

When selecting a dealer, bear in mind that they are not all equal. Every dealership is an independent business, operating under contract (a franchise) with a particular manufacturer to sell and service its brand of vehicles. Therefore, you can expect different dealerships to exhibit different characteristics, depending upon the policies and practices of their separate owners. When selecting a dealer, one major aim is to find the one that makes you feel most comfortable -- both confident that you'll get a fair deal and that you’ll be satisfied when you return for service.

Most states have laws that restrict the marketing of automobiles to new-car dealers and prevent automakers or brokers from selling directly to the public. Early in the development of the automobile industry, due to the substantial investment required to set up a dealership, car dealers and automakers voluntarily agreed to establish exclusive territories for franchisees, according to a report by the Consumer Federation of America. Even though this means there isn’t a lot of dealer turnover, you can still take steps to ensure that you will find a dealership that will take good care of you.

One step you can take is to buy a brand with high customer service ratings. J.D. Power and Associates (JDPA) just released the results of its latest Customer Service Index Study, which measures consumer satisfaction with dealer service departments during the first three years of vehicle ownership. (See the highest-ranked brands in the accompanying table to the right.)

The 2005 edition of the same study also measured service satisfaction among owners of four- to five-year-old vehicles. Owners of 2000 and 2001 models gave high marks to Acura, Cadillac, Infiniti and Lexus.

You can get some help from a local better business bureau or other state or regional consumer agencies that collect complaints, advises Krughoff. “You’ll find quite dramatic differences in regard to how many complaints are on file,” he said. Adjust for a dealership’s size, keeping in mind that larger businesses that conduct more transactions will attract proportionately more complaints. But overall, said Krughoff, “If one has a whole lot of complaints and an unsatisfactory record, I would be cautious.”

Julie Ask, lead automotive analyst with the market research firm Jupiter Research, points out that for some buyers dealer selection isn't an issue. “A lot of people are still working with a dealer that they have a relationship with or that people have referred them to,” she said.

Those who don't -- including shoppers who are particularly timorous about auto dealers -- can use the web as a point of first contact to begin to make an appropriate dealer selection. An increasing number of dealers today turn to Internet specialists like Harrison at Prestige Acura and Scooter Womack, who serves in a similar role at Herb Chambers Infiniti of Boston. They correspond with car shoppers online in order to introduce them to the dealership.

“I don't actually sell cars. I sell appointments,” said Womack. “I make sure customers are truly informed and sort through a lot of the information or misinformation.” His ultimate aim is to mesh particular customers with appropriate salespeople at Chambers Infiniti, making “showroom guests” of people who first arrive online.

Editor Mary S. Butler contributed to this article.

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