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Buy better on the Web
Now you're in the driver's seat

Illustration of a woman in front of computer.
Illustration by Timothy Cook
If you dread the idea of haggling face-to-face with a car salesperson, slogging from dealer to dealer, or searching in vain for the exact model you want, relief might be just a few mouse clicks away. The Internet can help you find the right model, search numerous dealersí inventories, and even nail the best price.

Indeed, our own automotive experts often use the Internet along with e-mail and phone when anonymously buying the more than 80 cars and trucks Consumer Reports tests annually. Here are five important steps that they and our other experts recommend:

Zero in on models. Find some suitable models for your taste and price range by reading the new-car reviews, Ratings, and reliability and safety data in this issue. ConsumerReports.org subscribers can access our full test reports online. It might also be helpful to check the owner reviews posted on our site and on other car-related sites. You can compare models side by side online using CRís New Car Buying Kit ($39). You can also print out details on the models and options youĎve chosen at the carmakersí own Web sites.

Take a test spin. The Internet is still no substitute for a test drive. Do your best to focus on the car and its handling and not be distracted by the salespersonís small talk. While youíre at the dealership, donít try to negotiate a price; instead, get an e-mail address and a phone number so that you can do so later.

Go price shopping. Many carmakersí Web sites let you configure the vehicle the way you want it, then forward the results to dealers, who can get back to you with offers.  Many sites, such as GMís and Nissanís, also let you search dealer inventory. In our experience, however, itís often faster to contact dealers directly, by phone.To be sporting about it, donít forget to give the dealership where you took your test drive a chance to bid. Be as specific as possible about the model and options you have in mind. Stress that youíre ready to buy and want the dealers to give you their best price, including a complete list of any additional fees. To put those offers in perspective, it helps to know how much room the dealer has to haggle. You can find what the dealer paid for the car, as well as any rebates and factory-to-dealer incentives, at car-pricing Web sites or by ordering a Consumer Reports New Car Price Report ($14 each, or free with the New Car Buying Kit mentioned earlier). If youíre curious about what others have paid for similar models, check the car-pricing forum at Edmunds.com or the new free Your best deal forum.

Drive a better bargain. If you arenít satisfied with the prices youíre offered, donít hesitate to phone or email the dealers again, asking whether they can beat the best offer you got in the first round. If that doesnít get you any closer, consider switching to one of your alternative models.

Close the deal. Once you find an acceptable price, call the dealer to verify the numbers. Emphasize that you donít want to see extra fees or other surprises when you show up to close the deal. If youíre planning to finance, go in knowing the loan rates available elsewhere and ask the dealership for its best rate.

Steer clear of these car-buying mistakes

Yielding to pressure. Donít get bullied into buying until youíve done all your shopping. (Itís a myth that federal law gives you three days to cancel an auto contract.) Use a credit card for your deposit instead of a check. That will give you more protection if thereís dealer hanky-panky.

Financing for longer than 48 months. Long-term loans come with higher interest charges. And they increase the chances youíll owe more than the carís worth if itís stolen or wrecked or if you decide to trade it in early. Consider taking a shorter loan or buying a reliable used car.

Taking the dealerís word for it. Whether itís free oil changes or anything else, make the dealership write any promises into the contract.

Buying unnecessary add-ons. Say no to dealer VIN glass etching, rustproofing, fabric protection, paint sealant, and extended service plans. Ditto for any expensive extras you might never use.

Blindly accepting dealer financing. Compare current car loan rates at www.bankrate.com, and then get your best offers from banks, credit unions, and online sources such as www.eloan.com. If the dealer canít beat your best rate, finance elsewhere.

Failing to negotiate a lease price. Dicker just as if you were buying, and make sure the dealer uses that price as the basis for your lease payments.

Leasing because youíre financially strapped. Yes, leasing can give you a lower monthly payment, but you wonít own the car at the end, and youíll pay a much higher finance charge. Consider buying a reliable used car instead.

Talking trade-in too soon. Donít mention trading in your old car until youíve completed negotiations on the new one.

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