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I'm not a soccer mom, so I hardly fit the stereo-type of a minivan owner. Far from it. Male, aging - some say creaky and cranky - and a lover of fine, fast automobiles that make a statement with their screeching tires, 0-60 in five seconds and styling that would make road demons out of soccer moms.OK, so why did I just buy another minivan? And why didn't I mouse into the Internet to find the best

I'm not a soccer mom, so I hardly fit the stereo-type of a minivan owner. Far from it. Male, aging - some say creaky and cranky - and a lover of fine, fast automobiles that make a statement with their screeching tires, 0-60 in five seconds and styling that would make road demons out of soccer moms.

OK, so why did I just buy another minivan? And why didn't I mouse into the Internet to find the best deals? After all, I'm on the Internet. AOL and all that stuff. I admit I don't fully understand it. I always thought a website was a place where spiders hang out. And I hate spiders, unless they come with an Alfa logo.

Anything that even remotely looks like one of those octa-legged critters gives me the creeps. That is if "give me the creeps" is a phrase still being used these cyber days.

Minivans. Hey, I've liked them since I spent a few weeks interviewing a couple of dozen Chrysler guys way back in '83, long before the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager went into production and then on to make automotive history.

I had young kids then who were involved in every sport except soccer, and I bought a Caravan not long after they hit showrooms. A fully loaded maroon '84. It proved to be a great vehicle for hauling all sorts of things, including our Sunfish sailboat and camping gear. When we moved it served as a mini-Mayflower.

It wasn't our only vehicle. We've always maintained a tiny fleet of diverse wheels. But it beat the fenders off a string of station wagons we'd owned and, when we sold it five years later, it fetched top dollar. One reason why: No rust.

Steve Sharf, then Chrysler's top manufacturing whiz, had convinced Lee Iacocca that galvanized body panels would give Chrysler a solid marketing advantage. Steve had pushed steelmakers for years to develop the technology. The all-new minivan was the first to use the steel in most panels. Side note: Even today it's tough to find an early Caravan/Voyager with rusty blemishes.

We moved out of minivans for a few years, then jumped back in with a top-of-the-line Ford Windstar in 1995. Dark blue. Ceiling-mounted rear heating and air conditioning, and other niceties. Plus a handsome family rebate courtesy of our son, Geoffrey, who toils in the Ford Motor Co.'s Customer Service Division.

Frequent trips to Northern Michigan towing boats and carrying loads was our chief motivator this time around. Travel to Florida for vacations was another. And hauling large groups of folks, young and old, in only one vehicle rather than two was a factor.

Windstar's first year was 1995, and our minivan was not flawless. But mostly it was minor things easily righted via warranty or pocket change. Our rating after 4 1/2 years and 71,000-plus miles hovered around B-plus. Some things we found lacking were corrected when Ford revamped the Windstar for '99.

We'd been thinking about replacing the '95 when an ad in our local newspaper caught our attention. Ford was offering either a $1,500 rebate or 3.9% financing over 36 months on '00 Windstars.

Geoffrey also came to mind: We still had the family discount available.

And we could have browsed the Internet to check out the best deals, as colleagues suggested. But we decided to buy the old fashioned way.

It helped that we live in Port Huron, MI, a relatively small town - pop. 38,000 and about 65 miles north of Detroit. We'd had our '95 serviced at Northgate Ford, and gotten to know a few folks there, something that's nigh on to impossible at most big-city dealerships.

We had never met the salesman, one of a half-dozen patrolling the showroom. We randomly selected George Udell, who has been selling new vehicles for only a year but before that sold used fleet vehicles for a local utility.

A Port Huron native, George was anything but a high-pressure salesman. As it turned out he knew half of our neighbors, knew where we lived when we described our home, and otherwise proved to be an affable guy with a baseball cap and athetic jacket.

We told him the basics: The equipment we wanted, what we expected to get on our '95 trade-in and our "A-plan" connection with Geoff.

He showed us a half-dozen '00 Windstars. We took the one best fitting our needs for a spin while his used-car guy checked out our '95. He was a cool dude.

He lowballed us in trade-in, but unabashedly wrote on the slip: "Nice Car." Thanks, pal. A little dickering and he came up a grand. The deal was clinched. Or was it?

Somehow the title for our '95 had disappeared. We filed for a new one just before we met George, and were told it would take seven to 10 days. And while the '95 had been paid off since 1997, the title still showed a lien. That meant getting confirmation of the payoff from our bank, which had changed hands in 1998.

We dialed the 800 number. "If you have a touch-tone telephone, press 1 now..." You know the drill. Ten punches later a human voice finally came on. The news wasn't good. A search could take a week or more.

Even though we had no clear title, George and his front office put through the deal, kept our old minivan and we drove off in a new one. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll settle all of that when the new title and bank confirmation come through." That's called trust. Try doing that on the Internet.

And his F&I guy joined in the warm tidings by getting us an 8.5% loan, up to a point lower than most quotes we'd checked out.

When all of the paperwork was organized and the bottom line popped up on George's computer, we were convinced we'd gotten a darn good deal. Without a hassle, and without a cyber assist.

David C. Smith is editor-at-large of Ward's Dealer Business magazine.

GM's 320 minority dealers recorded record sales of more than $8 billion last year, and nearly 80% were profitable, as compared with 62.5% in 1998, the corporation reported.

Thirty-four of GM minority dealerships, whose ranks grew by 26 in 1999, reached the corporation's Million Dollar Club, also a new high. GM dealerships owned by women, African-Americans and Hispanics rose by 71% since 1992, while the total number of GM stores fell 13%, the company says.

Are MSRPs history? Are manufacturers' suggested retail prices archaic?

Automakers have begun to assess the prevalence of market or "street" prices on independent Internet websites, with one auto company - Ford - already running an Arizona pilot showing "e-prices" that deviate up or down from the traditional manufacturer's suggested retail prices.

"Because of the Internet," says James C. Schroer, Ford vice president for global marketing, "there will be an increase in cost-plus marketing and less use of MSRP-based pricing."

DaimlerChrysler vice president for U.S. retail strategies, Gary Dilts, says DC also is discussing alternative pricing with dealers.

The issue is under study by GM's e-Dealer Advisory Council.

Most of the 104 NADA convention dot-com booths featured street-price displays.

Aware that computer shoppers often abandon factory websites for third-party sites when only MSRPs are shown on the former, Mr. Dilts asks, "Why shouldn't we give them what they want?"

All automakers studying the subject voice concern over the legalities involved in appearing to fix prices. That underscores the use of the word "suggested" in any prices they issue.

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