Test-Driving Luxury Sites

Note to readers:  This article was published in conjunction with Barron’s annual luxury car issue.  The article was short (by my standards) since there is a table accompanying the piece, plus an ad and a fair amount of white space.  I’ve restored some of the comments that didn’t get into print. 

CAR MANUFACTURERS SEEM TO THINK their websites must be packed with flash and glamour. Flash animations of vehicles travel the screens of many without prompting. And most make it way easy to find a live sales rep at a dealership. Yet key consumer information is often hard to locate.

Still, shopping for a car on the “Net is a great way to get a head start on the purchase process: You can get a feel for how much you’ll have to pay without leaving your desk. Just don’t expect to be able to complete the process online.

One of the better online offerings is http://www.bmwusa.com), “>BMW’s (http://www.bmwusa.com), which provides a 360-degree-view of your chosen vehicle, including interior and exterior colors. There’s just enough animation to keep the site interesting, but not so much that your browser bogs down. You can find a local dealer, and even search through dealers’ used-I mean, “pre-owned"-inventory, and save your searches for future reference. There’s also a section under the “Vehicles” menu where you can look at coming models.

http://www.cadillac.com)">Cadillac’s site (http://www.cadillac.com) lets you put together the car you want, and then search through the inventory at dealerships nearby to find whether an exact match is available. The Website gives you the ability to easily contact a GM certified Internet Manager to help answer your questions.

I like the “Which Lexus Fits My Budget?” feature on the http://www.lexus.com), “>Lexus site (http://www.lexus.com), found under the “Financial Services” tab. This site also gives those interested in Lexus hybrids tips for getting the most out of their cars.

http://www.audiusa.com)">Audi (http://www.audiusa.com) seems to assume that you know all of its models specifics, since the details aren’t available online. The configuration tool begins with choosing a model, even though there are no data, beyond the MSRP, to help you make that choice. Once you put a car together, you’re directed to a dealer for a quote.

http://www.infiniti.com) “>Infiniti (http://www.infiniti.com) not only lets you select a vehicle; you can get pre-approved for financing as well. The “Help Me Decide” feature, available on the first two screens of the configuration utility, provides useful information that is buried on most other sites.

I BOUGHT MY “MOMMY CAR,” a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan SE, on http://www.carsdirect.com). “>CarsDirect (http://www.carsdirect.com). Shopping online was ideal at the time, as I was just completing a move from Japan back to the U.S. Time was my most precious resource, so doing the research and getting 95% of the way through the buying process without human intervention (a.k.a. pushy salespeople) was an enormous help.

The purchase process has changed at CarsDirect, however. Now you can only get as far as specifying the features you want before being prompted to have a human being call you with a quote-and a sales pitch. You can deal directly with the CarsDirect staff, or you can opt to talk things over with a local dealer.

The site lets you compare up to four vehicles side-by-side—very helpful in sorting out specs such as headroom, legroom and exterior dimensions.

When I bought my Caravan—at the time a hot model—I paid $8,000 below what a dealer had quoted me on the same car (down to the vehicle identification number). CarsDirect even delivered the car to my home, and we finalized the deal at my living room table. 

The good deals aren’t quite as apparent now, however. Most luxury-car models are quoted at their MSRPs, and can’t be bought directly from CarsDirect. Instead, it virtually escorts you to a dealer to complete the transaction. Times have changed, and not entirely for the better.

Table:  The Internet Highway

Most of these Websites offer terrific graphics, sound clips and animation and, frequently, the ability to view a vehicle from many angles. Some are light on key data, however—even price.

Site Address What’s There
Audi http://www.audiusa.com Little detail on each model available. Configuration tool, however, is fun. 
BMW http://www.bmwusa.com “Build Your BMW” feature lets you specify your desired options and provides a quote. 
Cadillac http://www.cadillac.com User-friendly path to explore and compare models, configure one, get a quote. 
Ferrari http://www.ferrariusa.com Lots of pretty pictures, but not much information. 
Infiniti http://www.infiniti.com “Help Me Decide” offers useful configuration details. Financing pre-approval possible here. 
Jaguar http://www.jaguarusa.com Flashy intro page. Pricing and offers easy to find. Can search for used vehicles, too. 
Lexus http://www.lexus.com Good financing tools, lots of useful info on the “Models” page. 
Maserati http://www.maserati.com Great graphics, photos and video. Nothing on pricing; maybe buyers don’t care. 
Mercedes http://www.mbusa.com Very comprehensive. Good configuration tools. Lots of video. 
Porsche http://www.porsche.com/usa Includes sound files, so you can hear that Porsche growl. 
CarsDirect http://www.carsdirect.com Luxury-car quotes don’t offer much in the way of discounts. Car comparison is handy. 

Posted by on 09/30 at 02:23 PM

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