TEST-DRIVING THE AUTO CD-ROMS;A SPIN IN THE FAST LANE LEAVES OUR SHOPPER DAZED BUT EDUCATED

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Being a computer-literate consumer with an aging Jeep Cherokee, it seemed natural to check out the latest way to shop for a car, CD-ROM buying guides.

The goal: to see if interactive media makes it easier to scope out a new vehicle than plowing through magazines and showrooms.

My auto odyssey took me through three discs: "Popular Mechanics' New Car Buyers Guide," Automobile's "Automania: The Ultimate Car Buying Guide" and "Car and Driver '95 Buyers Guide."

All feature hundreds of cars, from Hondas to Bentleys, trimmed with spartan to luxury options. Many of the cars are displayed with full-motion video samplings, and all can be assessed in side-by-side comparisons that tally features, prices and finance rates.

Though the vehicle selection is grand, the depth is downright confusing.

It should have been a cue that something intense was at hand when Popular Mechanics' version opened with a bar from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. If you think dealing with Friday newspaper ads, screaming car dealers on TV and pushy salesmen is a chore, try surfing on a gigabyte of car fodder.

It helps if you're seriously searching for a specific type of vehicle.

"Automania," from K-III Magazine Corp., CornerStone Publishing, Burbank, Calif., and Creative Multimedia, Portland, Ore., easily was the most attractive of the three.

Using Jeep's Grand Cherokee as a target model, the $30 "Automania" offered up 13 varieties, ranging from a $22,643 four-liter SE, to a $31,900 5.2-liter, four-wheel-drive Orvis.

Charts, graphs and a row of headings highlighted the vehicle's features: curb weight, dealer invoice, fuel capacity, height, horsepower and length, mileage, range, torque, wheel base and trunk space. Whew!

What makes the CD-ROMs different are the special touches each publisher puts in.

Two of the discs contained interactive ads. Car and Driver offered up General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Cadillac; Nissan Motor Corp. USA; and Ford Motor Co. Popular Mechanics' disc included a Cadillac ad and a pitch for Toyota Motor Sales USA's CD-ROM.

Car and Driver publisher Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, working with Sony Imagesoft, Santa Monica, Calif., and Mammoth Micro Productions, Seattle, included a 5-minute instructional tutorial featuring Editor in Chief Csaba Csere. Bundled onto the $39.95 disc is a trial America Online subscription that provides 10 hours of browsing, allowing the viewer to access the publisher's area online and retrieve updated information and car prices.

For the hunter, the disc offers a "Buying Advice" section, asking in humorous fashion such questions as how fast a car he wants, how many people will be carried, under what conditions it will be driven and how much the driver is looking to spend. Using my criteria, it threw up 12 models, including six minivans, one station wagon and the Cherokee.

Minivans. Ouch. Maybe I'm not the person I thought I was.

Car and Driver also offered its 375 performance test results and 390 articles on the 264 models featured.

There was confusion, though. When I tried to access an ad from Chevrolet, the computer locked up for 2 minutes, eventually returning to the previous screen.

Educating the novice car buyer was a goal of all three. Popular Mechanics, whose publisher Hearst Corp. worked with Books That Work, Palo Alto, Calif., provided a tutorial that covered finding a model, a dealer and a lower price. Determine a budget and stick to your guns, the $30 program implores.

"Loan Lease Calculator" computes both loans and leases, including interest. Popular Mechanics offers a calculator to help compute monthly expenses and affordability. When it told me I had $94 a month to spend on a car, I knew it was designed for a much more frugal era.

Having taken three CD-ROMs for a spin, am I ready to buy a car on the information highway? Computer technology got me deeper into the review process than if I had to rely on a magazine.

But it's the little things that make a difference when shopping for a car, like how the driver fits in the cockpit, how many car seats fit across the back bench and if the rear window opens to let the dog slobber down the tailgate. Until they develop software that can do that, I'm still going to make the trek to the dealership.

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