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Magazine: Web Auto Shopping Lacking

March 16, 2000

DETROIT (AP) _ Consumer Reports magazine says Internet car buying services need some work before they become real alternatives to dealers. The magazine also said it will start compiling a ``wholesale price″ that gives consumers a more accurate estimate of what a dealer pays for a vehicle.

The magazine, whose annual auto issue hits newsstands March 21, said a review of five major Internet car buying sites found a lot of useful information, but not good service.

For its Internet study, Consumer Reports asked 1,056 people to request quotes for six different vehicles from sites such as Microsoft’s CarPoint and Cars.com. Dealers who responded had to be within 100 miles of the shopper, and had to deliver the quotes within two business days.

Only 35 percent of the shoppers received a quote within the time limit. The quotes were often not for the exact vehicle specified in the query, and 22 percent of the shoppers were told they’d have to visit the dealer to get a firm price.

``At this stage, we don’t think the Internet is a very attractive option for actually completing the purchase of a car or other vehicle,″ said Lou Richman, finance editor for Consumer Reports.

CarPoint generated the highest percentage of leads, responding to 43 percent of queries. Autobytel was second, responding to 39 percent.

Richman said despite the hassles, many of the shoppers who tried to get quotes said they would consider using the Internet if they went shopping for real.

For its wholesale price service, Consumer Reports will give out the dealer invoice minus dealer incentives or special fees called ``holdbacks″ _ typically 2 to 3 percent of the cost that manufacturers refund dealers. The price will be part of a $12 report that Consumer Reports sells shoppers.

Several organizations, including Internet sites and Consumer Reports itself, offer estimates of dealer invoice prices for new cars, but the magazine says consumers need a more accurate price.

``We are now going to give consumers a new starting point,″ said Paige Amidon, the magazine’s director of auto price services.

The annual auto issue also includes the magazine’s widely followed annual ranking of best buys, and few changes are made in this year’s rankings. One exception _ the Toyota Tundra replaced the Ford F-150 as best full-size pickup.

The magazine’s testers picked the Tundra as best full-size pickup _ a first for a foreign model _ over the Ford F-150 due to differences in ride and refinement, said David Champion, Consumer Reports director of auto testing. Ford had held the title since 1997.

The Tundra ``is very quiet, very nice to drive in every situation,″ he said. ``Whereas the Ford still has a strong engine, the ride is not quite as good, and the overall refinement is not quite as good.″

The magazine split its picks for best family sedan between the Volkswagen Passat and the Toyota Camry. The Passat edged out the Camry last year.

Among the magazine’s top picks among 2000 models in other categories: Mazda’s Protege for small sedans, Subaru’s Forester for small sport utility vehicles, Lexus’ RX300 for conventional SUVs, Honda’s Odyssey for minivans, Audi’s A6 for upscale sedan and Mazda’s MX-5 Miata for driving fun.

With the F-150 out of the rankings, no American automaker had any vehicles on the list of top picks. Consumer Reports said the new Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra pickups had tested well, but had been hurt by reports of body squeaks and rattles. It also said the Jeep Grand Cherokee was hurt by quality problems.

``We would dearly like to recommend more of the domestic cars but their reliability has been below average over the years,″ Champion said.

Other new models with quality problems: the Mercedes M-Class SUV and the Volkswagen New Beetle. Consumer Reports said owners of the Mercedes had reported a variety of complaints, while Beetle owners had greater than expected electrical problems.

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On the Net: http://www.consumerreports.org.

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