Car makers now seem confident that they've turned the tide against online car-buying sites, Mercury News reported.

"What you are hearing, the article quoted John Holt, CEO of the Cobalt Group as saying, "is manufacturers and dealers saying that they've won. Whether that's said publicly or not, there's a lot of dot-com bashing going on.''

Holt’s company creates Web sites and provides Internet services for 15 automakers and half of the 100 largest dealership groups in the United States.

Automakers and dealers are now "in the driver's seat,'' one Toyota executive told Mercury News.

"I have news for you. No matter how many pundits predict the death of the dealer structure at the hand of the Internet, they're wrong,'' said Irving Miller, vice president of the office of the Web for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "Witness the recent turmoil and consolidation of the online vehicle-buying services.''

Both Holt and Miller spoke on Thursday (30/11/00) at the EyeForAuto e-business automotive strategy conference at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel.

Mercury News said that officials from DaimlerChrysler, Honda, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Toyota and others were scheduled to speak. But only a single representative from a buying service, Santa Clara's Autoweb.com, was listed.

Recent news has been bleak for independent online auto-buying companies. That includes companies that have stopped selling cars online (carorder.com), layoffs (Autoweb.com, carsdirect.com), executive changes (Autoweb.com, Priceline.com's car-buying division) and cancelled plans to go public (AutoTrader.com).

Those moves followed consolidations in the last year or so that included Autobytel.com buying CarSmart.com, AutoNation buying AutoVantage.com and Microsoft's CarPoint.com buying DriveOff.com, Mercury News said.

Studies have shown that a majority of customers now use the Web to research the purchase of a new car or truck, but the number who actually buy online, especially directly online, is small. But it is growing.

Car shoppers went to Autobytel.com and dozens of others dot-com car-buying companies that sprung up since 1995 because they didn't like dealing with auto dealers, Toyota's Miller told Mercury News.

Now, he said, many dealers have begun changing the process and how they deal with customers – both online and in person.

Some of those changes will be reflected later this month when new versions of Toyota's www.toyota.com and www.lexus.com Web sites will be launched.

These sites will let customers configure cars online and get prices from dealers. Buyers will be able to see streaming videos and communicate with dealers via e-mail.

"In order to take the dot-com presence to the next level, we had to change the entire architecture,'' Miller said.

Mercury News said similar things are going on at Ford, which is about to launch a selling site, www.FordDirect.com, with its dealers in the San Diego area before a planned nationwide roll-out in 2001.

As automakers and dealers get more Web-enabled, said Jeff Bell, retail marketing manager for the Ford Division of the Ford Motor Company, "there's less and less need for intermediaries.''

An executive with Autobytel.com, who wasn't at the EyeForAuto conference, remains confident that there's room for companies like his as well as automakers and dealers in the online auto-buying space.

"As the sifting through of all the opportunities for consumers, as that begins to weed itself out, we will definitely be one of the survivors,'' Charles "Chick'' Ramsay Jr., senior vice president of automotive operations at Autobytel.com said to Mercury News.

But he admits his company has felt "weighed down by all the others'' in the segment who are having problems, as well as the general stock-market uneasiness with anything related to technology and the Internet.