Car Shopping: 5 Websites to Help You Choose

I've been buying new (a few) and used (quite a few) cars for more years than I care to remember. I always do my research and have only been stuck with a lemon once, and that was one of the very first cars I ever owned-a classic, '60s-something VW Beetle that needed two engine rebuilds in two years.

Cars have gotten more expensive to buy and repair over the years, and that makes picking a winner more important than ever. Fortunately, the Web offers lots of tools for buying new and used cars and checking out their safety and reliability. Here are my favorites.

Consumer Reports is the mother of all car information sites. It's deep, it's rich and the integrity of its parent company, Consumers Union, is generally considered beyond question.

Like many publishers, the folks at Consumer's Union have stopped giving away quite as much content as they used to. There's a fair amount of free information on the site, but to really get the down and dirty you'll need to pay. A year's subscription to the Web site is $26; or you can sign up for $5.95 a month while you're looking for a car and then cancel. I've done that the last few times I made a car buy, and it was money well spent.

Since CU doesn't accept advertising, the reviews and ratings, many backed up by lab or road testing, can be merciless: Consider this deadpan brickbat: "The least reliable vehicle, the Volkswagen Touareg, is 27 times more likely to have a problem than the most reliable car, the Honda Insight." The most useful section on used cars is behind the pay wall. It breaks down common components and systems of many models and rates each one for reliability over the years.

For an extra $14, you can get a pricing report on a specific model that includes information like dealer incentives and holdbacks that will help you negotiate the best possible price.

You'll even find even oddball tips like best cars for older drivers and best cars for tall and short drivers on the site, plus a variety of tools, such as a calculator to estimate car payments over the life of an auto, or another that compares loan and leasing options. All in all, this is a great starting point for your automotive research.

Carbuyingtips.com has a Web site that looks like they bought the design at Waldo's Weborama. But don't let the ugly yellow and blue color scheme put you off. There's great information here, and I like the attitude as much as I dislike the visuals.

My favorite page is this one: http://www.carbuyingtips.com/car3.htm. It's filled with snarky and useful tips; the ones that warn you of sneaky dealer tricks are labeled with a logo of a bull moving its bowels. Kind of gross, if funny, but the tips are dead serious, such as this one: "If they claim they don't know what a specific fee is for, they are lying and you should leave immediately." The site reads like it was written by someone who has sold cars and is turning away from the dark side. It explains, for example, that car salesman like to play upbeat music on the radio during a test drive to get you in a buying mood.

The site has the most lucid explanation of the difference between a factory invoice and the MSRP sticker I've seen and gives very solid advice on how to negotiate the price of a new car.

Cars.com has a number of useful features, but it bothers me that the 2010 Toyota Corolla is on its list of best new cars. You might recall that the 2010 Corolla was involved in the infamous stuck accelerator problem and you've got to drill really deep on the cars.com site to find that out. That's information that should be right on the surface.

On the plus side, it's a good place to find a car to buy, or to sell one. Its search tools are more granular than say Craigslist (you can search by price, mileage, year, style, zip code and more) and you can place a free ad, including up to three pictures, that will stay on the site for 45 days.

Kelley Blue Book is a free, easy to use site that provides a decent estimate of the price of new and used cars. One very useful feature lets you see the difference in the price you'll pay (or get, if you're selling) a private party or a dealer. Hint: You'll almost always get more if you sell a car to a private party than you would when using it for a trade in.

The last step in buying a used car is, of course, a visit to a trusted mechanic who will check it over and let you know what problems it has. If you want to be extra careful, or think the car's ownership history is suspicious, two sites will run a check on the car's history based on its VIN, or vehicle identification number. AutoCheck will do that for $29.99; CarFax for $34.99.

Finally, take a look at CarTalk.com. The site is a companion to the popular NPR radio show, but it has also has useful articles, tips and discussion boards. Besides, it's fun.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

Read more about web 2.0 in CIO's Web 2.0 Drilldown.

This story, "Car Shopping: 5 Websites to Help You Choose" was originally published by CIO.

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