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Consumer Reports Knocks Auto Sales Sites

Consumer Reports gave the online auto sales business a major black eye, issuing a press release that starts out by saying: "Don't plan on buying a car on the Web anytime soon."

The non-profit product and service evaluation company said that its research shows that "only 35 percent of potential car-buyers received a price-quote back within two days from dealers at five popular online auto-shopping sites."

And "when a quote was produced, it was not always for the exact car specified."

Sites in the test were AutoBytel, AutoVantage, AutoWeb, Cars.com and CarPoint.

Consumer Reports said it commissioned a panel of 1,056 online shoppers to request quotes for six different vehicles -- a minivan, a sport-utility vehicle, a luxury import, a sports sedan, and two mid-priced sedans -- each equipped with common options.

The research stipulated two requirements: dealers who responded had to be located within 100 miles of the shopper and had to deliver the quotes by e-mail or phone within two business days.

Among the results:

  • Only 35 percent received a quote within the 48-hour limit
  • 22 percent of the shoppers were told they would have to visit the dealership to get a firm price
  • Only 2 out of 3 dealers who responded said they had the car in stock or could find it quickly
  • None of the five Web sites consistently produced high or low prices
  • Overall, price quotes were between 5 and 10 percent below Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), reasonably competitive for some models but pricy for others

The good news was that 60 percent of those who were able to get a price quote would consider shopping in the future on the Web sites they tested.

"We discovered that the online referral services don't live up to expectations -- yet," said Lou Richman, finance editor of Consumer Reports.

"Going online is a terrific way to do auto-related research, but you can't kick the tires through your computer monitor; and you can't slide behind the wheel with your mouse.

"When online shopping matures in the next few years, consumers might well prefer the Internet to showrooms, but for now the car-buyer still has to visit the dealers."