By Carol Traeger
It's a slow day at the office and you're staring at your computer, thinking about ... cars.
Maybe you're daydreaming about the new Chrysler Crossfire. Maybe you're worrying about the crash-worthiness of that heap your daughter's new boyfriend drives. Or maybe you're a greenie trying to narrow your car choices to the most fuel-efficient, nonpolluting vehicles on the planet.
The answer to your every automotive question is on an automotive Web site inside that computer on your desk. Researching cars on the Web is the best way to make an informed decision, whether it's about financing, insuring, selling or buying a car.
If it's a new car you're after, do your homework on the Web before negotiating at the dealership; chances are you'll know more about the car you want than the sales person helping you. And you just might get a better deal, too.
Surfing car Web sites is the next best thing to taking a test drive (which is always recommended). Best of all, you can do it at work (during lunch hour, of course). The list of legitimate car sites is too lengthy to include here. Following are some of the most popular and helpful sites:
Autobytel - www.autobytel.com: Partnered with more than 5,000 dealers nationwide, Autobytel can help you buy a new or used vehicle, haggle-free. This site has lots of features, but its strength lies in its in-depth, car-buying advice. While you're there, check out the Autobytel Report Library, which offers free downloadable reports on the vehicle of your choice, as well as guides on topics ranging from used cars to fuel economy.
Auto Trader - www.autotrader.com: This site has a huge inventory of used vehicles; provides buying and selling tips, car reviews, specs and ratings, finance and insurance information; and has a dealer locator and decision-making guide.
Cars.com - www.cars.com: In addition to being the Web home of Click and Clack (Tom and Ray Magliozzi), this site is great for research. You can search for new and used cars, read automotive news and reviews, and get advice on everything from rebates and financing to car-care and safety.
Carfax - www.carfax.com: Don't buy a used vehicle before getting a complete vehicle history report, which is what Carfax is all about. (Note: It charges $19.99 for unlimited used-vehicle history reports.)
Edmunds - www.edmunds.com: In addition to new-vehicle manufacturers' suggested retail prices and dealer invoice prices, Edmunds provides its own "True Market Value Price" - that is, what you can expect to pay for a particular vehicle based on what people in your area really are paying for it. The site also includes new car reviews, a "Used Vehicle Appraiser," "Finance Rate Estimator," and "Edmunds Town Hall," an easy-to-scan chat room where car shoppers and owners can field questions. Sign up for one of Edmunds' e-mail newsletters to stay current on the vehicle category of your choice (SUVs, wagons, etc.).
FuelEconomy.gov - www.fueleconomy.gov: As the name implies, this government-operated site rates new and used vehicles based on gas mileage and greenhouse gas emissions. It also provides fuel-saving tips and answers to frequently asked questions about fuel economy.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - www.highwaysafety.org: So your son wants a Honda Element? Find out how well it performed in this nonprofit group's 40-mph frontal offset crash test.
IntelliChoice - www.intellichoice.com: This company was the first to offer "true cost of ownership" vehicle information. It also offers side-by-side model comparisons.
Kelley Blue Book -- www.kbb.com: The ultimate resource for new-car prices and used-car values, this site also offers insurance advice, quality ratings, estimated five-year cost of ownership info and a way to get a title history.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - www.nhtsa.dot.gov: Get vehicle crash-test ratings, child seat ratings, vehicle safety tips, recall information and U.S. traffic safety statistics straight from the U.S. government.