Car Buying

How to use the Internet to shop for your new car

88 percent of car buyers go online to sites like Autoblog to research and compare cars before they buy.

Can you buy a new vehicle online today in the U.S. the way you can order books, appliances or plane tickets? Well, it largely depends on where you live — and specifically, how robust your local automotive dealers' e-commerce platforms are. But in many cases, the answer is now yes.

The Internet is an indispensable component of the car-buying experience. Consumers are going to the manufacturers' websites to research models, compare trim and package options, ask questions and submit sales leads. And they're turning to automotive media like Autoblog and others to read reviews and other news, and to independent sites like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to look up safety ratings.

But in many cases, the Internet is relegated to a supporting role. That's thanks to laws that vary from state to state regarding the ability to buy directly from the manufacturer, and to the limitations of dealership websites, which may be able to handle things like negotiating lease terms and pre-approving credit, but not trade-in value or the final onslaught of paperwork.

The test drive

It's also down to a more fundamental truth: When considering something as expensive and important as a new car, many customers would agree they want to be able to test-drive their new wheels before agreeing to the purchase.

"There's tons of opportunities to determine which vehicle they want," said Blake Underriner, managing partner of Walla Walla Valley Honda in Eastern Washington. "Obviously we're in an industry where people like to touch and feel before they decide what they want."

Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com, said dealerships are adding online capabilities.

"You can get pre-approved ahead of time, you can submit a lead and you can set it up where you can go to the dealership and essentially, all you have to do is sign paperwork," he said.

Paperwork

Many dealers can now handle paperwork over the web and deliver new vehicles to your home. "And it's going to keep going that way," Brauer added. "We will see at some point a fully online process that people can use fairly soon."

Unless you're set on buying a Tesla, you're going to have a hard time escaping a visit to a dealership showroom as the last step in the buying process. Tesla is the best known of a new breed of automakers challenging entrenched state laws that prohibit auto sales direct from manufacturers and instead require consumers to buy from licensed franchise dealers. However, other new manufacturers, like Rivian and Polestar, are diving deep into online sales.

"No state prohibits you from buying a car on the Internet in the sense that you can buy a Tesla online, and Tesla will deliver it to your home," said Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan who has worked on this issue with Tesla. "No state does — and probably could — prohibit that."

Configurators and online quotes

That said, e-commerce capabilities are advancing rapidly across the industry. Virtually all auto manufacturers feature online build and price capabilities and the ability to ask for a quote. Dealers are also developing e-commerce capabilities, including the abilities to evaluate trade-in value, find interest rates and get credit approvals. Plus, many new, highly-desirable cars are being launched with a manufacturer-backed reservation program where you can put your name on a list to get in line. This is more common with launches of electric vehicles, but some gas-powered cars like the Acura Integra offered a similar service.

Underriner works with a National Automobiles Dealers Association subgroup that is tackling e-retailing strategies and best practices. He says the industry is working to cater to changing consumer expectations.

"Whatever way the customer wants to buy is the way we want to take care of the guests," he said.

Underriner recommends that consumers start their process by asking themselves what features are most important to them. Are you looking for the latest in connected, hands-free technology? Strong safety ratings? Something to haul a family and lots of gear? Fuel economy? And what's your price range?

Figuring out which new car to buy

An easy place to start is with Autoblog's Car Finder tool, which lets you filter vehicles based on your budget and some of the other factors noted in the previous paragraph and compare specifications and prices. Try Autoblog's Car Finder to search for your next new vehicle. You can also use our search function to look up news and reviews on specific models. And we also have a Compare tool that lets you evaluate multiple cars side by side.

You'd also do well to go to the different manufacturers' websites, which usually allow you to configure a car, review trim packages and compare specifications. And sites like Kelley Blue Book and TrueCar offer information on the trade-in value of your old car and transparency into what others have paid for specific new vehicles in your local market.

Finally, you can visit IIHS to view independent crash-test ratings or NHTSA.gov to find official government versions, and look up
EPA fuel-economy ratings.

Once you've identified your choice, Brauer recommends engaging with multiple dealerships online — almost all now feature real-time chat with sales associates — and indicating that your purchase is imminent. "It gives the consumer a lot of purchasing power," he said, the equivalent of saying, "who's going to give me the best deal?"

Happy hunting!

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