Yet dealers aren't entirely in the driver's seat. They have had to adjust to Internet buyers who are increasingly savvy. By browsing free Web sites -- such as Edmunds.com, KBB.com, and Autobytel.com -- buyers can peruse consumer reviews of cars, discover exactly what the dealer paid for the car (invoice price), uncover undisclosed manufacturer-to-dealer rebates, and learn about "holdback" (the built-in 2 to 3 percent rebate dealers receive on every unit sold).
By going to person-to-person sites such as Ebaymotors.com, buyers may bypass dealers entirely and strike a deal for the price they want on the car they want -- even arranging to have it delivered to their doorstep. The vast choices offered at Web sites have definitely put buyers in a better position to bargain than ever before.
"Knowing dealer costs and incentives ahead of time helps avoid the shell games that happen at dealerships," says Jeff Ostroff, who operates CarBuyingTips.com. "The salespeople know you've done your homework. Today, there is no reason for anyone to go into a dealership without having good information."
The Internet isn't just about pricing. It's about educating yourself and shaving hours off the time spent at a dealership. Sophisticated carmaker-sponsored sites offer virtual tire kicking, video tours, and 360-degree views. At independent sites, such as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov) and Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org), buyers can compare rollover data, child safety statistics, crash tests, and recalls -- items salespeople may avoid during a sales presentation.
Buyers can use features at online sites to calculate loan rates, find financing and insurance, and even pull their own credit reports. Car shoppers can walk through the buying process at a Web site, get advice on negotiating, and discover formulas for determining what is a fair price for the auto they desire.
Continued on page 3: The Web Watches You