European car companies are far behind their US counterparts in developing Internet websites for use by consumers.
Aside from small-scale trials at General Motors' Vauxhall division in the UK, at Volvo and at Fiat, you can't buy a new car on the Internet. Most makers don't even allow financing to be arranged online.
The European market is still waiting to be exploited. Unlike the USA, Europeans are still largely unaware of Internet car services like Autobytel or Microsoft's CarPoint.
For now these services are prohibited from selling cars in Europe by block exemption - the rule that permits carmakers to operate exclusive distribution and dealer networks until September 2002.
'There isn't the pressure here like in the USA, where they had to go faster and find answers,' said Frank Appenzeller, senior manager for development of virtual sales channels at DaimlerChrysler. 'Autobytel can't sell our cars in Europe unless we give it permission - and we won't give permission because of block exemption.'
But there are other factors slowing the move to web selling. Internet penetration is still low in Europe. The UK is the fastest-growing market for Internet services, but only 20 percent of all households there can go online. That compares with 39 percent in the USA, said Declan O'Mahoney, marketing director at Vauxhall.
Some automakers are reluctant to embrace Internet technology because of the belief that car buyers will always want to go into a dealership and buy a vehicle in person.
European companies are using the Internet mainly to provide information to potential customers. But even that service is limited. For instance, Volkswagen AG only quotes prices in Germany. They aren't available on the web in other markets.
Toyota doesn't even have a European website. Users must log onto the Japanese site and navigate through more than 10 pages to get a European distributor's site.
GM decided to test the market by launching a web car-buying service in the UK on November 1. Vauxhall was chosen because UK consumers are embracing the Internet more quickly than elsewhere in Europe, said Nick Reilly, Vauxhall chairman.
Vauxhall offers six special 'dot.com' badged models on the Internet with an average price saving of 1,000 (euro 1,600). There are no additional incentives or finance offers.
Vauxhall has sold about 60 cars online since the launch, said O'Mahoney. 'I'm not sure the Internet will become the dominant channel for car buyers,' he said, 'but you would take some big business risks if you chose to ignore it.'
Along with setting up the buying service, GM redesigned Vauxhall's website. It offers the same kind of product and price comparisons as Autobytel. The site is user-friendly and easy to navigate. Users can set up a test drive, arrange financing, make payment comparisons, and access other services.
GM says it will eventually roll out similar programs in other markets.
Ford of Europe recently launched a pilot program in Finland, which boasts the highest per capita online use in Europe. Ford offers its entire European range on the web in Finland at discounts of 4-6 percent.
Fiat Auto was the first to sell cars online in Europe, offering two special edition versions of the Barchetta roadster in Italy. Since August 30, fewer than 10 cars have been sold. But the project's purpose isn't to sell more cars, said a spokesman.
'It's of great interest to understand the kind of people and the potential customers who have logged onto the site,' he said.
Fiat may roll out the Barchetta program in other European markets. But it believes southern Europe will be slow to embrace the web. Online penetration is lower in southern Europe.
'The Internet will be a force but it will take some time,' said the spokesman.
The first brand to launch a fully-fledged online buying program could be Smart, the minicar brand owned by DaimlerChrysler. Smart already offers price quotes online. Within months it will sell cars - allowing the complete sales transaction over the Internet, said D/C's Appenzeller.
'We will start with Smart because it is the young brand,' he said.
Dealers will handle the final transactions and deliver the cars.
Mercedes-Benz will begin offering online price quotes to potential buyers in the first quarter of this year.
'Even for the Mercedes brand, it is necessary to do this,' said Appenzeller. 'We receive numerous e-mails requesting price details.'
DaimlerChrysler already sells used Mercedes cars via an online service. It has an average stock of about 40,000 vehicles.
Although Autobytel.co.uk was launched in the UK on April 30 last year, it is not the same as the US service. A user can research and compare several different makes and models, get price quotes and place an order online.
But Autobytel can only sell the brands sold by parent company Inchcape's dealer organization. Inchcape bought the rights to the Autobytel site name from the US company. Inchcape dealers sell 10 different brands, but Mazda and Toyota models make up the majority of their business.
If an online buyer wanted to compare a new Ford Focus with a new Fiat Brava, for example, the autobytel.co.uk site could provide only a partial answer. Inchcape sells the new Ford, but not the new Fiat. So the buyer would be given prices for used Bravas - and even then only for cars in stock. A direct comparison would be impossible, which is why Autobytel has so far made limited impact in the UK.
European makers say that although they don't sell cars on the web, they do provide the same service as operations like Autobytel.
They provide links with local dealers so online users can place orders.
'Consumers can order a car online, either used or new, and their local retailer will contact them to sign the contract,' said a Citroen spokesman.
VW's web page allows a buyer to configure a car with specifications and to send an e-mail to any dealer he chooses. But the e-mail is not accepted as a contract.