Another good way to engage dealers during the research process is to visit them to test-drive vehicles. The Internet can give you a good introduction to specific models and load you up with insight and information about any car you desire. But experts advise that you physically experience a vehicle to make sure that it suits you.

"Even with all the fancy graphics we have on the Internet, with 360-degree rotations and everything else, nothing replaces touching and feeling the car,” said Mark Perleberg, lead automotive expert for, the online publishing division of the National Automobile Dealers Association. “I test nearly 200 cars a year, and every one has something that is different. They all have different variations and themes. You have to touch and feel them to get that experience."

What's more, you shouldn't make test-driving a final step, meant only to validate a decision made using online tools. Experts advise you to kick tires early, as an invaluable aid in narrowing your search. That's especially important with Internet research. It simplifies the task and helps prevent the information overload that can actually hinder effective shopping.

“Some people try to get all the pricing information and competitive quotes before trying to find out which cars they really like,” said Herb Chambers Infiniti’s Scooter Womack. “They may get a great competitive quote, but then they see the car and decide they don't like it.”

Even the most ardent researchers usually don't learn enough online to make an accurate decision, he states. Market research by Herb Chambers, a mega-dealer group in New England that sells 22 brands, from Maybach and Porsche to Hyundai and Saturn, indicates that about 75 percent of its customers don't buy the car they initially inquire about. They change their minds about details like colors, they add options or even select an entirely different model.

Early test-drives let you focus intensive Internet research on appropriate models only. “Why do the work on five cars when you may only need to do the work on two cars?” said Womack.

“If you haven't gone out in person and looked at cars and driven cars and narrowed it down that way, there is a possibility that you'll overload yourself with information,” said Prestige Acura’s Jamie Harrison. “You need to figure out what you like, then do research on those models. Then you can move forward with your purchase.”

Besides, when test-driving cars, you're also test-driving dealerships, getting an early indication of the approach and attitude of the various car stores you visit. That goes a long way toward helping you select a dealer from which you feel comfortable enough to eventually make a purchase.

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