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When I run a car into the ground, I do so in spectacular fashion. There was my 1991 GMC Jimmy, which crapped out on the backside of Steens Mountain. That it did so while rocketing down a roughly 45-degree incline with no guardrail and enough boulders littering the road to give Wile E. Coyote a panic attack was much to my copilot’s and my chagrin. The disc breaks gave up the ghost, and the ensuing frame rattling – not to mention near death experience – was enough to sour me on the vehicle for good.

1x1.trans | A tale of three car sites, only two of which do it rightI traded it in for a used 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which served me well for nearly a decade before the radiator exploded while driving to the coast for Memorial Day weekend this year. When I pulled into Burgerville to assess the situation and eat dinner, it was making a metal-on-metal sound that not even Lou Reed at his most avant-garde would have dared call music. When I exited BV, the lake of coolant under my vehicle was roughly the size of Titicaca, and I knew its number was up.

Over the course of the weekend, my research assistant/smoking hot wife gave the interwebs (and our local library) a beating they won’t soon forget. Faced with the choice of spending $400 on a new radiator – not to mention the impending kidney sale that would come when my transmission choked to death – or renting a car until I could find the time to comb the entire city of Portland for a worthy replacement, I chose neither. Thanks to some handy online resources, I was able to find almost exactly the car I was looking for and conclude the transaction with the good folks at Herzog-Meier by the end of the day Monday.

What resources enabled this modern-day miracle, this far-fetched feat of automotive fortuitousness?

Three things:

1x1.trans | A tale of three car sites, only two of which do it right1) The Kelley Blue Book app – The free app will help you figure out what your current car is worth if you want to trade it in, as well as giving you a good idea of the value of any car you might consider buying and how it might hold its price. Why it does it right: With a simple, easy-to-navigate interface, you’d have to close your eyes and rubber-band your fingers together to not be able to work this app. Simply click new or used, the year, make and model, and you’re cruising.
2) Consumer Reports – Through Consumer Reports, we discovered a car that appealed to both my wife’s common sense and my style stipulations, all while getting a solid rating for durability, safety and resale value. The reputable car-and-consumer-electronics reviewers will tell you about the best makes, models and years of cars. Why it doesn’t do it right: Unfortunately, Consumer Reports has decided to charge for its online content, meaning you have to pay $6.95 a month or $30 a year to access this info on the web. The good news is, your local library likely carries Consumer reports. Save your money, and hit the stacks to do your research. Perhaps at some point, Consumer Reports will realize there’s more money to be made incorporating advertising or going the IMDB route – offering free and paid versions of its content – than there is in charging consumers directly.
1x1.trans | A tale of three car sites, only two of which do it right3) Autotrader.com – Say you know what kind of car you want, but you don’t want to drive all over town to find it. Autotrader can point you in the direction of a local dealership that carries it. That’s how we found my 2005 Honda Pilot at Herzog-Meier, which deals primarily in Volkswagens. Why it does it right: While the site isn’t pretty looking, it’s super functional. You can be as detailed or as general as you want when it comes to what you’re looking for, and Autotrader will give you a great idea of what’s available in your community. If you’re even earlier in the process than that, the site can show you what you might be able to afford in the first place. Now, if they could just consider hiring a new web designer, all would be right in their world.

The lesson here is simple. Know what your consumers are looking for and make it easy for them to find it. The Kelley Blue Book app and Autotrader both provide a great free service that will have people coming back the next time they need to buy a car and recommending the resources to their friends (I heard about Autotrader from my brother, who used it to buy his own car). While Consumer Reports knows what its online users want, it is clearly less concerned with effective, consumer-centric models of online commerce.

1x1.trans | A tale of three car sites, only two of which do it rightSo it was that after a long day of looking, researching and haggling, I was able to drive home in a car that functioned properly, a novelty whose charm has yet to wear off. It might not be as exciting driving to work without having to worry if some aspect of my engine is going to malfunction horribly, leaving me on the side of the road or the back of an ambulance, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

While there’s no telling how my Honda Pilot will finally bite the dust, I have no doubt it will be spectacular. When it happens, assuming I live to tell the tale, I’ll be ready to research the next car I’ll doom to the monstrous fate of ferrying me into automotive Valhalla.

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