Oldsmobile is taking a leadership role on the Internet, with the emphasis on sales leads.

While the General Motors division started the year with only a marginal electronic presence, Olds will finish the year with most of its leads coming from the Internet.

That's an inexpensive, smarter way to do business, says Mike Sands, Olds advertising manager.

And where dealers typically care most about stuff that's going to move the metal out the showroom and down the real highway - it's clear many of the key players are fully behind the digital division.

"I think the Internet is the right track," says Allan Groves, general manager of Ed Groves Olds-Cadillac in Clarksville, TN. "If a guy is on the Internet for ahalf hour, that's less time he's probably watching TV. We need to be in the right place to get his attention."

It's simple math. If a dealer or the factory can reach a consumer via e-mail, it saves $1.25 or more for printing and mailing out a direct mail piece.

"I'm not sure how it will evolve, but we'd better be in the right place to take advantage of it," Groves says.

The focus on the Internet has resulted in some interesting activities for Olds.

One of the most recent was last month's sponsorship of a special "Drew Carey show" Web-cam episode.

As part of a Web-based plot twist for the Nov. 17 episode, Carey's employer, the fictional Winfred-Louder department store, gave Drew a houseful of new appliances. The catch is that Drew must allow two Web-based cameras to record him using the swag.

That footage appeared on a specially created Web page (www.winloud.com). When Carey is away from home, footage continues of activities that take place there, while the TV show moves to his office, his favorite bar and other locations.

The Carey promotion follows an Olds sponsorship of the 25th anniversary "Saturday Night Live" special on NBC, a Sheryl Crow CD promotion and Rockfest, an outdoor concert in Atlanta and several other cities that formed the basis for an Oldsmobile-hyped MTV rebroadcast of the concert.

The company has jumped at every Internet opportunity, from becoming on of AOL's first advertisers back in the early days of the Internet to the first auto partner with E-Trade.

Mr. Sands says the division will at least triple, and possibly quadruple, its Internet spending in 2000. The efforts already are paying off.

With the elimination of such senior magnets as the Olds 88 and Cutlass, and the addition of the Intrigue and Alero, Olds has dropped a decade off the average age of its drivers in the last 18 months.

Sales are up dramatically and a key initiative to attract African-American buyers has doubled the division's sales to that group in the same period.

In the 1999 model year, Oldsmobile sales totaled 379,620 units. That compares to 308,571 units sold in model year 1998, a 23% increase.

Olds now boasts 14% import conquest, second only to Saturn within GM, and Alero owners actually say their second choice is an import - unfamiliar territory for the company that created the amazingly ugly Achieva just a few years ago.

Everything about the Internet presence for the division is designed to get people quickly and easily into the "handraisers" pool of prospects and ultimately behind the wheel of an Olds. Web visitors are offered $50 to test-drive an Olds from every page on the Web site.

Oldsmobile clearly has come a long way, according to Floyd McElwain, owner of McElwain Olds-Cadillac in Beaver Falls, PA.

"It's been a winding, twisty road," says the dealer, who has been selling cars since 1966. "I've seen things happen to this car company that are amazing."

He says the latest efforts at Oldsmobile, along with the stable of viable products, is really turning things around at the division.

One challenge that remains is to ensure that any dealers who de-emphasized the Olds part of their business during the long slide in sales from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s get back with the program.

Mr. EcElwain says, "We're seeing a younger buyer now and that's a breath of fresh air. But we got rid of a lot of traditional Oldsmobile names. We don't have a car name that Americans are familiar with. We're working on that with the new advertising."

Mr. McElwain says what Mr. Sands and the product people are doing at Olds is taking the automaker in the right direction.

The dealer says all the new razzle-dazzle technology is great as long as Olds remembers that most people still want to seal deals the old-fashioned way, with a test drive and a hand shake.

Mr. Groves agrees that things are looking up.

"For a period we were trying to say that the product was new and different, but it wasn't," he said. "We're definitely more focused on where we're going now."

So while Oldsmobile remains a long way from those million-unit sales years of the mid-1980s, Mr. Sands says he's beginning to see a flash of hope that it has finally turned the corner. At the very least, it's finally really not your father's Oldsmobile.

Jeff Green is a Detroit-based senior reporter who covers the auto industry for Brandweek Magazine. He can be reached at 248-680-8446 or jgreen@brandweek.com.