A cruise along the superhighway

Want to get your way through the jam of car sites on the Web? James Ruppert finds a route - and a host of automotive trivia
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When it comes to cars and the Internet, unless you know your way around you could end up just pootling along down some rural B-road and hitting a dead end. However, with the right route map you can hit an M25-sized jam of information, especially as manufacturers take the net more seriously and an international band of auto-anoraks do their utmost to provide you with unimportant, yet fascinating, car-related facts.

Looking for a new car? Why waste time trudging around forecourts, car lots and visiting private sellers when there are thousands of models waiting for you in an on-screen cyber showroom. This has become big business in the United States where dedicated Internet-based traders have each sold more than 20,000 cars a year. A peek at the US Autoweb site shows how developed the system is, it will even e-mail you once a car you want is found, but isn't much use if you want to buy a right-hand drive Ford Escort. On this side of the pond, Motortrak showed some potential. I typed in my requirements for a Jaguar Sovereign and it came up with 18 choices. I wanted more details and was led to a dealer, Lancaster in Sevenoaks, where I could look at a picture of the Jaguar and all the details I needed to know. Then I checked out some of the other Sovereigns, all of which seemed to live at Lancaster's. I soon realised that there are not enough advertisers to make this system work.

I tried looking for the most common Ford Escort 1.6 hatchback. No match was found. Asking for any Escort at all threw up 38 choices, but once again it was just one dealer group with the cars A site with 150,000 car prices wasn't much help either, failing to value a common-or-garden Escort.

More useful was a comprehensive listing of franchised dealers in every county and town courtesy of Car DealerNet UK which helps buyers to track down new cars. Dealers run their own car sales Web sites, but some, like the Ford outlet Perrys in Milton Keynes, found that updating it was very time consuming and the response low. This is mainly because, for the majority of car buyers, the net isn't the obvious place to start looking. Clearly the Internet has the potential to change the way we actually buy and sell cars, but not just yet.

By contrast, the traditional print media, in the shape of the Exchange & Mart and Autotrader titles, have transferred rather well to the screen. Type in the used car of your dreams, enter your budget and your postcode, and, with Autotrader, dozens of choices flood the screen. Great. Saves you a trip to the newsagent. However, half the fun of thumbing through the real Autotrader magazine is stumbling across a car you wouldn't normally have considered. This is why the links to other car-related Web sites are so diverting.

I found myself looking at pictures of someone's Volkswagen Beetle which was being restored - and, rather worryingly, found it fascinating. Once you are off through the links there is no telling where you will end up. I stopped off at the Cop Car Registry to pore over the National Highway Patrol Reference Guide to discover that if I was ever in Alabama the state troopers drive around in battleship-grey Ford Crown Victorias. There were also useful tips to avoid getting caught in that state's speed traps.

Interested in James Bond's cars? Then there is a site with pictures, plus everything you didn't need to know about the cars, including registration numbers. Motorsport? Then visit Ferrari's grand Prix team, or McLaren. But then just as you are getting sensible, up pops The Murray Walker Quotes Page compiled by Pete Fenelon and dedicated to the pearls of commentary wisdom from the voice of Formula One. Contributions from around the globe include "With half the race gone, there is half the race still to go". There is one picture of the great man and a reassurance that Murray has seen and enjoyed the site.

Weird stuff is everywhere on the Web. Luckily there is sensible and quite useful stuff too. Multi Media Mapping can provide a map of anywhere in the UK, with a street locator and route finder options. Although a free service and a shop window for their skills, they will want your e-mail address for marketing purposes, a minor inconvenience for a very useful on-line resource.

Manufacturers have caught on to the possibilities of the Internet and, compared to the cost of high profile advertising and glossy brochures, cyberspace is a cheap way to get their company message across. Vauxhall has an excellent site, complete with a Traffic Master Information service to spot jams, a used car finder as well as all the usual Vauxhall's in action type shots.

As you would expect, BMW has an accomplished site and managed to locate the whereabouts of 15 M3 coupes that I'll never be able to afford. BMW, owners of Rover, have also created an enthusiastic official Mini site which not only tells you all you need to know about the lovable small car, but even lets you design, on screen, your own Mini.

Also plying their trade on the net are car magazines which ought to stick to the shelf. It is difficult to see the point in these, but they could snare new readers with up to date news. Carworld Connect involves three magazines - Car, Performance Car and Classic Cars - and has links to other sites and a forum which allows you to chat away with other petrol heads. However, you may find it more stimulating to look at unobtainable foreign publications like Motor Trend from America and an exclusively Internet woman motorist site which doesn't patronise.

As a practical car buying tool, the Internet is not yet a sensible option. For automotive trivia lovers, though, there are hundreds of wonderful wasted hours at local-rate call charge waiting to happen. The automotive Internet is hardly a superhighway but the roadworks are definitely under way. In a few years time we could wonder why anyone ever bothered to visit a showroom, or buy a motoring magazine. In the meantime, have fun cruising.

Free maps and route finding: www.multimap.com. Official Mini info: www.mini.co.uk. Ads plus good links: www.autotrader.co.uk. Manufacturer info and traffic updates: www.vauxhall.co.uk. A superior manufacturer's site: www.bmw.co.uk. Used car ads: www.exchangeandmart.co.uk. Schumacher's F1 team: www.shell- ferrari.com. An American car magazine: www.motortrend.com. Insider info on the US Highway Patrol: www.speedtrap.com/speedtrap/copcars. Three car magazines: www.erack.com/car. Murray Walkerisms: www.users.zetnet.co.uk/petef/racing/walkerisms.html. An American women's Web magazine: www.womanmotorist.com.