DETROIT - It's been one of the most eagerly awaited debuts in automotive history, and thanks to the Internet, as many as 100,000 fans across the globe had the opportunity to share in the festivities when the new Chevrolet Corvette made its debut at the North American International Auto Show earlier this month.
Normally, these new car roll-outs are open only to reporters attending the auto show's three-day press preview. But for the Corvette's debut, Chevrolet "broadcast" a live video feed from Detroit's Cobo Hall on the Internet. Anyone with a browser could "tune in" simply by accessing Chevrolet's World Wide Web site.
Unusual, yes, but not unique. Last November, Buick introduced its new Regal on the Internet. And today, it's impossible to find an automaker without a web site. Dealers by the thousands are setting up their own home pages. And so are a growing number of buying services handling both new and used cars.
And for good reason. According to the trade publication Advertising Age, at least one in five potential buyers are turning to the Internet for help choosing the right car or truck - new or used. That will add up to anywhere from 10 million to 20 million people this year.
Automakers are only too happy to help.
"We're looking at the Internet as more than just an advertising tool," said George Hanley, Chevrolet's strategic manager for online projects. "It allows us to talk directly with consumers."
As many as 150,000 people visit Chevy's site during a typical week - more when there's a special event such as the Corvette introduction. Toyota is having similar success with its own web site, which features not only product information but a series of lifestyle magazines - e-zines in web-speak.
"The Internet has become our second-largest source of leads, right behind inbound telemarketing," said Toyota's in-house web guru, Jim Pisz. While most manufacturers are using the Internet to emphasize their newest products, Jaguar recently announced a program that will make it easier for consumers to find "previously owned" models.
The Jaguar Remarketing Computer Network allows potential buyers to search the lots of Jaguar dealers across the country to find precisely the car they're looking for. …