For a long time, online shopping has delivered the biggest benefit to swimsuit shoppers.  Instead of lugging all your insecurities with you to the mall, you can simply order the bathing suits and bikinis that interest you, try them on, and then weep in quiet desperation in the privacy of your own home.

Increasingly, car shoppers are able to take advantage of the same benefits of online shopping.  While you still can't try on cars at home, you can replace the sometimes-unpleasant and nerve-wracking trips to the dealership with a few emails. Plus, when you shop for a car online, you're arming yourself with more information than you could ever get in a trip to a dealership.  You're also able to instantly communicate and negotiate with multiple dealers, saving you time and money.

Still, handling such a big purchase online can be daunting.  Here's how it's done.

Research

Research is always the first step in buying a car, whether you buy online or off, but the Web has made researching a car easier than ever before. When you've found a model that you're interested in, check out reviews and rankings to see how it stacks up against the competition.  This is also a great way to see what other models you should be considering.  U.S. News has divided the automotive market to rank cars by class. Check out the rankings lists to see how your favorites stack up.  Then, dive into our reviews -- they're based on the collective opinion of the automotive press, so instead of tracking down and reading lots of reviews, you get all the information you need in one place. We also have each model's crash test scores and EPA ratings in our reviews, so all your questions should be answered.

First Contact

Sadly, Amazon isn't selling cars (yet . . .) so you're still going to have to make a trip to the dealer or two. When you go to the dealership, ask to meet with the internet sales manager (or you can always send an email to set up an appointment before you go-- we'll tell you how below).  Let him or her know what model you're interested in, and go for a test drive. If the internet sales manager wants to talk price or negotiate, let him know that you prefer to discus those things via email and that you'll be in touch.

Hop Back Online

From your test drives, you should know exactly which car you want and how you want to option it. Now, instead of researching the car, start researching price. A number of sites offer services that let you see what others in your area are paying for the car you want, so you can start to get a ballpark idea of what you'll end up paying. U.S. News also lists the best current car deals being offered by manufacturers, so you can take advantage of every discount out there.

Negotiate

Once you know roughly what you'd like to pay for the car, it's time to contact dealers. Using a free, no-obligation, online quote tool is the best way to do this.  You simply enter your area and the car you're looking for and dealers near you respond with their best prices.  This tool is a great way to get in touch with dealers in your area if you still haven't done a test drive, or to reconnect with the internet sales manager you met with earlier. The best part is, when you use the online quote tool, the dealers know they're competing with each other for your business, so you get a better price.

Once you get a decent quote, start negotiating to get the best price you can. When you negotiate via email, make sure the dealer is spelling the terms out exactly, and make sure you are too. Have the dealer list out exactly what is covered in their price -- and if you don't understand, ask them to clarify.

Sign on the Dotted Line

After negotiating (via email, of course) and agreeing on a price with a dealer, it's time for your last trip in your old car. Because you will have negotiated all the details online, all you should need to do at the dealership is fill out the paperwork and pick up your new car.  Make sure you bring printouts of the email from the dealer that explains the exact deal you're getting -- and if the dealer tries to change those terms, politely remind them of the deal you already agreed upon. 

If you have a trade-in, you may have to negotiate how much the dealer will giver you for it (since the dealer has to inspect your trade, this can't be done over email), but the biggest negotiation, the price of the new car, will be already taken care of.

Buying Used

If you're buying a used car, you can still do a lot of your legwork online.  While you should still visit and inspect the car you want to buy in person, check out our online used car listings to get a comprehensive list of what's for sale in your area and to get into touch with the sellers. 

Leasing

Leasing a car online is just as easy as buying, and follows a similar process.  U.S. News lists the best lease deals of the months so you can see what incentives are out there.  Then, you can use the online quote tool to contact dealers and get the best lease for you.