Need a new car but can't face the hassle of the showroom forecourt? Wake up, your dreams have just come true. By James Ruppert
DOES THE thought of going into a car showroom fill you with dread? Not up to trailing around dozens of forecourts this Saturday? In that case I've got some great news. If you are hooked up to the Internet you can find the car you want via the world's largest online service. Autobytel, which has changed the way millions of Americans have bought cars, is set to shake up UK buying habits.

Autobytel was launched in the United States in 1995, and is now the market- leading Internet car buying service. Its sales are currently worth more than $500m (pounds 350m).

Industry surveys by JD Power confirm that Internet-generated sales are now responsible for 15 per cent of all new car sales in the US; this should rise to a staggering 50 per cent by the year 2000.

The UK is fertile ground for such service. Mori polls prove that seven million people have access to the Internet (that's 14 per cent of the population); 10,000 households go on line each week and over 12 million should be hooked up by 2001.

Looking for cars in cyber space is not a new concept over here. There are excellent and well-established shop windows provided by Exchange & Mart and Autotrader, and dealer-based search services like Virtual Showroom and Motor Trak. Autobytel offers a more comprehensive service, not only locating dealer and car, but also finance and insurance. In theory, you needn't even go to a showroom until you collect the car - and presumably this is the future of car retailing.

That must be what Inchcape thinks anyway, because in the UK, Autobytel is a wholly owned subsidiary of the world's largest independent automotive distribution group. Although set up back in February 1998, launching the service appears to have been delayed unnecessarily.

"No, we only started signing up dealers in January this year and, so far, it has all gone according to plan," says Kevin Turnbull, the company's chief executive. "The difficulty has been finding partners who understand the Internet."

What non-Internet users most dislike about traditional car buying is pressure selling (73 per cent), the worry of being ripped off (62 per cent), being hassled in the showroom (59 per cent) and the salesman's impersonal approach (59 per cent).

On top of that, half of those interviewed didn't fancy haggling over price and a part-exchange and anyway were confused by the whole jargon of car buying. Over a third did not know how to complete the deal.

In the same survey, Internet shoppers welcomed the opportunity to surf showrooms and 50 per cent said that they are likely to buy a car online; 92 per cent were attracted by best valuing pricing, 87 per cent liked the idea of having all the relevant information such as used car prices available to them, and 84 per cent preferred to have a no-hassle, no-obligation, no-haggle experience.

"We want to be the customer's champion," says Mr Turnbull. "We don't care what they buy, but we provide all the relevant information free of charge to help them make their decision."

Tap in and you find a consumer-friendly site. Cleverly it allows visitors to compare and contrast various makes and models, side by side, on screen. Parkers Price Guide and Glass's Guide help to make informed valuations. Top Gear magazine compiles the model reviews.

There are dedicated services too, including finance. All used vehicles come with at least a 12-month warranty, a guaranteed mileage and history check, multi-point inspection, extended parts and labour warranty plus an exchange programme if you are not happy with your purchase.

I found the system easy to navigate, but I did not find a lot of cars. Two hundred and fifty dealers subscribe to Autobytel and Kevin Turnbull explained this was because of a "quality, not quantity" approach.

The existing motor industry likes the idea of Autobytel. According to Chris MacGowan, chief executive of the Retail Motor Industry Federation: "The Internet is a serious business opportunity for manufacturers and dealers. It will provide an excellent way to increase sales for dealers and manufacturers."

But it is the buying public who need to be convinced, and there are signs that more of us are using the Web, as a Steve Holder in Norwich told me. "I saw the Saab I was after on Autotrader's site one night. I rang next morning, drove 200 miles to Country Durham and bought it on the spot. Without the Internet, I would never have known that the car existed."