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AOL, AutoNation Form Virtual Auto Dealership

America Online Inc. expanded its e-commerce offerings Monday by teaming with leading automotive retailer AutoNation Inc. to co-brand an online car store.

In the multi-year alliance, the terms of which were not disclosed, AutoNation and its licensees will be the exclusive retailers of new and used vehicles to AOL members who purchase a car or truck through the co-branded site.

With "AOL AutosDirect, Powered by AutoNation.com," more than 22 million AOL members will have the opportunity to buy any car they desire online.

The site will accompany AOL's Auto Channel, expected to launch this fall, which will offer members information, services, and tools for shopping, buying and maintaining automobiles.

AutoNation will continue to operate its own automotive retail Web site, AutoNationDirect.com, which will now be offered through the auto areas of other AOL properties, including AOL.COM, CompuServe, and Netscape Netcenter.

Though it makes most of it deals offline, AutoNation is no stranger to the Net, having launched AutoNationDirect.com last June. Since its launch, AutoNation has sold more than $1 billion worth of vehicles over the Internet.

With that service, the company offers a vehicle featuring every major manufacturer make and model. It also features Q&A Live, a chat help feature allowing customers to send real-time, chatroom-like messages to Internet Sales Guides while they're at the site. Also with Q&A Live, visitors will be able to request guided tours of AutoNationDirect.com and other automotive Web sites.

As a convenience factor, car shoppers who visit AutoNationDirect.com reserve vehicles with a credit card.

"AOL AutosDirect Powered by AutoNation.com" will offer one year of free scheduled service, a personalized search of AutoNation, $200 off any vehicle ordered from the factory, $100 off the purchase of a theft deterrent device and guaranteed service appointments that can be reserved online

AOL's goal is to be the dominant player in the online auto dealership industry, which includes competitors such as Priceline.com and AutoBytel.com .

"Through this agreement with AutoNation, we will allow users to research prices, compare features and accessories, secure financing, arrange a test drive and select a vehicle for purchase -- all online," said Bob Pittman, president and chief operating officer, America Online Inc.

In related news, AutoNation Monday bought the AutoVantage car buying service from Cendant Corp. for an undisclosed amount in cash. AutoNation also entered into a three-year licensing agreement to use Cendant's AutoVantage trademark and its related logo solely in connection with the acquired service.