The Internet has empowered car buyers. Now it’s doing the same thing for consumers arranging loans to buy those cars.

Dealers need to deal with the new reality of auto financing in the Information Age, says Andrew D. Koblenz, the National Automobile Dealers Assn.’s vice president and general counsel.

“Few customers shop for dealers, going from dealer to dealer; now they go online checking inventories,” he says. “They are doing the same with financing.”

It’s tempting for dealers to resent the power of modern consumers sitting in front of computer screens and arming themselves with automotive data before visiting dealerships, Koblenz says.

Instead, dealers should “embrace” such fact finding, he says. “If customers are happy with a purchase and the process, then chances are they will return to the dealership. The best customer is an informed customer.”

That applies to auto financing, particularly at dealerships, where most auto loans originate.

“Customers like having tools to make finance-buying decisions,” Koblenz says. “These are important decisions that have a great effect. Research shows people want to know more about the financing system.”

Yet, although more consumers show an interest in auto lending, many remain woefully uninformed, according to AWARE (Americans Well-Informed on Automobile Retailing Economics), a consortium that includes NADA, major dealership chains and auto makers’ captive finance firms.

Nearly eight in 10 consumers don’t check their personal credit score or compare financing options before heading to a showroom, an AWARE survey indicates.

In contrast, six of 10 surveyed consumers say they research particular vehicle models before going to the dealership.

“During the vehicle-buying process, consumers tell us they put a lot of research into the car or truck they are considering,” says an Aware spokesman. “Our goal is to help educate consumers so they are as aware about their financing as they are about the vehicle they are buying.”

“We found that most consumers classified themselves as novices or apprentices when it comes to vehicle financing and admit to feeling uninformed when it comes to that process,” he says.

One of AWARE’s primary initiatives is an informational website, www.autofinancing101.org. Another effort is to set up booths at auto shows and other events.

Those showing the greatest interest in learning more are African Americans (81%), consumers in the 25-54 age range (68%) and young car shoppers’ parents (69%), according to AWARE polling.

The vast majority of Americans (80%) know their credit histories affect the rate at which they can finance new vehicles. AWARE says more Americans know that than the 69% of surveyed citizens who know Dick Cheney is the U.S. vice president.

AWARE also aims to help consumers repair bad credit histories, starting with basics such as paying bills on time and not over spending.

NADA is encouraging dealers to tell buyers rates are negotiable and that dealers may charge for helping to arrange a loan.

“Information is the best ally towards lasting customer relations,” Koblenz says. “We have an obligation to provide unbiased information to educate consumers about vehicle financing.”

It’s not just about selling an interest rate anymore. It’s also about offering various finance and insurance products, as well as offering convenience and building relationships, he says.

Finance and insurance operations are essential to most dealerships because they “save” dealers who make thin profits or lose money selling new cars, Koblenz says.

“The average dealer today barely ekes out a profit on the new-vehicle sales side,” he says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com