Would you buy a used car from this man?

Track down the vehicle of your dreams without having to haggle. David Sumner Smith on the Web sites about to transform UK motor sales
With a personal fortune equivalent to the combined wealth of several developing nations, Bill Gates does not need to begin a new career as a used-car salesman. But his Microsoft empire has joined a growing number of companies which have identified the Internet as the ideal medium for motorists. UK subscribers to the Microsoft Network (MSN) who indicate an interest in motoring subjects are directed straight into the Autolocate Web site, where they can request brochures, order new cars at discounted prices and search through 15,000 used cars available from franchised motor dealers throughout the UK.

Once in the site, you simply indicate the type of vehicle or the specific model desired, the price bracket and your home postcode and Autolocate finds all the details of the cars that suit - it even tells you how far you will have to travel. If the car you want is unavailable, you can register your inquiry and receive an e-mail notification as soon as one comes on to the system.

Other Web sites, such as Carsource, Autolink and Motortrak, follow similar patterns, encouraging dealers to advertise used cars on the Internet, with links to their stock-control systems to ensure automatic updates of information about cars for sale. Among the most impressive is Virtual Showroom, which incorporates immediate displays of vehicle finance options and an accurate, personalised valuation for any car offered in part-exchange.

This has already attracted the participation of more than 600 dealers, including every outlet in Vauxhall's Network Q-approved used-car network, and taken Virtual Showroom towards the "critical mass" where there are sufficient used cars available for the site to become a realistic way of tracking down the used car of your dreams. And if you are looking for a used car from a private seller, sites run by conventional publishers such as Auto Trader, Exchange & Mart and Auto Hunter are already viable options.

Motor manufacturers are keen to focus attention on new cars, and Korean car producer Daewoo has thrown down the gauntlet by announcing plans to sell cars via the Internet later this year. "As cars become viewed more and more as commodities, an ever-increasing number of motorists will make dispassionate, objective purchase decisions," explains Andrew Thompson, Daewoo information services director. "The Internet is ideally suited to that process, and we expect it to be a very significant marketing channel for car sales before the year 2000."

Though the structure of conventional dealer networks presents problems for online sales by other manufacturers, most are keen to explore the potential of new media. "The Internet is becoming a fundamental tool in marketing our products and disseminating information to our customers everywhere," says Ford's chairman, Alex Trotman. Ford's presence on the Internet is more widespread than any other manufacturer, with multilingual direct links to car sales networks in more than 50 countries.

Almost every manufacturer has a Web site of sorts. Though some - Vauxhall, BMW and a handful of others - add value through interactive used-car listings, company-car tax-liability calculators and the like, most have failed to grasp the unique qualities of the medium. One important exception to the rule is the Mini site, designed to emphasise the ways in which you can personalise your car. As well as a real-world options list that allows you to create your own Mini on screen, there is also an imaginary options list. Fancy a Mini with stained-glass windows, half-tracks instead of tyres and Pamela Anderson in the passenger seat? This is where your wishes can come true.

More serious, but no less impressive, is the Jaguar site. Not only does it offer a choice of six languages and an evocative history of the marque, but it will soon also gain a magazine section in which you can define the content you require, ranging from traffic updates and real-time stock market news to sports results and a range of lifestyle articles.

But other than Daewoo, none of the manufacturers has faced up to the way in which the Internet is poised to transform the way in which we consider, choose and purchase both new and used cars. The impending earthquake will be triggered by the arrival of the American company Auto-By-Tel before the end of this year. Its impact promises to be colossal, reshaping the way in which cars are bought and reducing car prices in the UK by up to 10 per cent.

In addition to an excellent Web site including valuable data such as five-year ownership cost forecasts for every vehicle, Auto-By-Tel offers new and used cars at astonishingly low prices. Car buyers in America benefit because they know that any car they purchase through Auto-by-Tel has a profit margin of just $300 - without any need to haggle with a salesperson. Dealers benefit from an average 93 per cent reduction in marketing cost compared with conventional media and an enormous boost in sales: in the two years since setting up in business, Auto-by-Tel has brokered more than 250,000 car sales.

"The Web gives power to the consumer," says Auto-By-Tel's founder, Peter Ellis. "The UK car market will be transformed within as little as two years." His beliefs are largely shared by Dennis Evans, general manager of Rover Group marketing. "The industry spends more on marketing and the sales structure than it does on car production," he observes. "It's a clear target for potential cost savings and an inevitable area for change."

"A powerful new force is being unleashed," says Don Keithley of highly respected motor industry consultants JD Power & Associates. "People are not going to want to buy cars the same way ever again." Ford chairman Alex Trotman agrees. "It's a revolution - the greatest buyers' market in history"n