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Little Dotcom Coupe

Click and Clack discuss the importance, functionality, and dangers of evaluating cars on the Internet, and answer the question: Does the Web really put you in the driver’s seat?

The love affair began — give or take a few years and a few expert opinions — on October 1, 1908 somewhere along Detroit’s Mack Avenue. It was then and there that Henry Ford introduced the first automobile designed and priced for the masses — the spunky, clunky Model T. Americans throbbed with passion for the horseless carriage. They named her “Tin Lizzy.” They purchased nearly 11,000 units during her first year of production. And they began to consider transportation a near-religious experience.

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Ninety-one years later, at a time when Christianity Net and Jew FAQ deliver religious experiences 24 hours a day, car buying has become just another emotional voyage turned sterile and anonymous by the dot com phenomenon.

Or has it?

Has the breakthrough of Autobytel.com and CarPoint, among others, begun to numb and demystify the six-cylinder, dual-exhaust zeal of a country that has forever worshipped its “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Greased Lightnin’,” and “Cadillac Ranch”? Can any Web site truly replicate the soft sheen of new upholstery and bristle of factory-direct floor mats? Will virtual venues like Cars.com actually entice Goodwrench goofs to maintain, repair, and adore their wheels with a little help from accessible online experts?

In search of answers, Fast Company recently approached the best known grease monkeys in America. Tom and Ray Magliozzi came of age in auto shop class, and have not yet identified a decent substitute for the sense of wonder and ingenuity they find under the hood of a ’63 Dodge Dart. For 22 years, the Magliozzi brothers have encouraged America’s infatuation with hot rods, low riders, and luxury gliders through their award-winning National Public Radio show, “Car Talk.” Better known as Click and Clack, these two M.I.T. graduates have witnessed automotive trends ranging from tail fins to DeLoreans and”ponycars” to minivans. Most recently, they have begun to field listener inquiries about the novelty of online automotive research and purchasing — a trend that could forever alter the car industry as we know it.

In the following Q&A, Click and Clack discuss the importance, functionality, and dangers of evaluating cars on the Internet, and answer the question: Does the Web really put you in the driver’s seat?

The Web is brimming with car-buying resources on sites such as Autobytel.com, CarPoint, and Autoweb.com. What sites do you believe provide fair, well-respected information for car buyers? What distinguishes useful, praiseworthy sites from online renditions of crooked used car lots?

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[Tom]: Our favorite site is actually Cars.com, because:
1. It’s the only URL we can remember.
2. They’re the only ones willing to face widespread Internet ridicule by teaming up with us.

[Ray]: We don’t actually do any car pricing or dealer referrals in our part of the site; they handle all that stuff. But we produce a bunch of real consumer-oriented content like a database of recommended mechanics and the “Car-O-Scope”?

[Tom]:…You answer a few, simple personality questions, and our computers tell you whether you’re compatible with your car, and if not, what make and model you would be compatible with. It’s pretty cool. Although my brother’s still miffed that his recommended vehicle was a “Schwinn.”

What are the greatest dangers associated with purchasing a car online?

[Ray]: Well, one danger is that some of the online “car sites” are just fancy advertisements for dealers. They charge the dealers money, and when you say, “I wanna buy a car,” they send you to the dealer who paid them for the referral. There’s no advantage for the buyer in that. You want a site that gives you good, non-biased research tools, a good variety of dealers to choose from, and tons of individual car listings.

[Tom]: You’re absolutely right, but even then, you can’t do the whole thing online. Unless you’re the kind of person who always buys a new Camry every two years come hell, high water, or tail fins, you have to go out and test drive the car. There’s a human element you can’t avoid…

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[Ray]: The stale coffee and jelly donuts at the dealership?

[Tom]: Yeah. And seeing the new ’99 plaids!

[Ray]: What you can get from a good Web site is a hell of a lot of background information. If you do your research online and go to the dealership “well advised,” you’re less likely to get talked into buying a car that everybody else on the planet knows is a piece of junk, or even paying way too much for a good car.

Do you think automotive e-commerce will encourage more car buying among members of the population who have habitually felt threatened, disrespected, or tricked by car salesmen? Has e-commerce brought an element of equality to the car-buying process?

[Ray]: I don’t think it’s going to encourage more car buying per se. Even people who’ve always hated the dealer experience have still bought cars. Sure, sometimes it meant wearing an Arnold Schwarzenegger mask, or coming heavily armed…

[Tom]:…but, the Web has certainly leveled the playing field. For example, now you go to a site like Cars.com and, in 20 seconds, you have a target price. That price represents their estimate of the good, negotiated price you should pay for any given make and model, factoring in how well it’s selling, rebates, etc.

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[Ray]: That means that you’re a lot less susceptible to dealer pricing games. So if you get to the dealership knowing your target price is $19,600, and the dealer says, “I can’t go any lower than $22,800…or I’d be losing money on the car and my boss would fire me,” you can invoke the “bite me” clause and walk out. Whereas, in the past, you might have paid $22,800.

[Tom]: After he promised to throw in the free floor mats.

How long should a potential buyer expect to spend researching their car purchase? How many online sources of information should a shopper consult before making up their mind?

[Tom]: Well, it depends on what kind of Internet connection you have. With my brother’s 300 baud Hayes-compatible, he could spend a year and a half just trying to get a target price.

[Ray]: The simple answer is that you should research your purchase as long as it takes until you feel comfortable. Some people know what kind of car they want, and just want to know what price they should pay. That can take a few minutes these days. Other people, like my brother, consider and re-consider purchases so long that entire model years leave the show room, rust out, get crushed into cubes and come back from Korea as new Hyundais by the time he’s made a decision.

[Tom]: Did I tell you, I think I’m finally ready to buy that Corvair?

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[Ray]: Generally, we’d recommend you get pricing information, reliability information, and safety information, and use that to narrow down your choices. Then go drive the cars you like. The test drive is still important, because you still have to feel physically comfortable in a car. The seat has to be compatible with your butt. Your arm has to rest comfortably on driver’s door when the window is rolled down. There are all kinds of Zen elements that can’t be determined on the Web yet. I’m sure Bill Gates is working on that stuff, but it doesn’t exist yet.

Do you think car owners will learn to maintain and repair their vehicles with the help of car advice and fix-it information available online? How will this change the car-buying experience and purchasers’ expectations?

[Ray]: Maintenance may improve as some of the old myths get debunked, but I don’t think you’ll see any more do-it-yourself repair based on Web sites. I tried it once. I was under a car, and I couldn’t even pull the 17-inch monitor under there to read what was on it.

[Tom]: Plus, repair information has been available in book form for years, and that hasn’t turned CFOs into shade tree mechanics in huge numbers, has it? Of course, that may change once the Internet bubble bursts…

[Ray]: Right. We may see CFOs saying “Do you want fries with that?” too!

[Tom]: But again, the best thing the Web can do for you now is level the playing field. For example, on our site, we have a database of all of the car questions we’ve ever answered in our newspaper column. So if you search under “steering wheel shakes,” and you learn that, when it happens during braking, it can be a sign of warped disc rotors, you’re likely to have more confidence when your mechanic recommends disc rotors for your wobbly steering wheel.

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[Ray]: It’s not going to tell you how to fix it yourself, but you’ll know whether your mechanic is making good sense, or just trying to cover his next boat payment.

Is the online car shopping experience currently constructed in a way that will accommodate most buyers? Are used car shoppers more likely to score a deal in person? Can vintage car collectors trust the quality and authenticity of a classic car sold online?

[Tom]: Of course not! You can’t trust anybody even remotely connected with the automotive industry.

[Ray]: Including us!

[Tom]: Absolutely.

[Ray]: But a decently designed site should accommodate a variety of buyers. And the Web has been particularly great for used car buyers. We tend to recommend two or three-year-old off-lease cars to our customers, and you can find a zillion of those on the Web.

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[Tom]: But then there’s still the personal piece of the transaction. We always recommend that you get a mechanic to check out any used car or classic thoroughly before buying it. And that’s as true on the Web as it is anywhere else. So don’t trust anybody who’s selling you a car — the Web hasn’t changed that axiom — but you can use the Web liberally.