It’s theoretically possible, but very few consumers use the Internet to perform every step necessary to buy a car online.

Dealership chain AutoNation has experimented with that A-to-Z idea, then dropped it due to lack of consumer interest. At some point, customers want to see the car and the dealer.

Still, surveys indicate many people like to use the Internet for much of the car-buying process before heading to the dealership.

Dealer websites should offer customers the option of buying online, even though much of the actual transaction is offline, says Jeff Kershner, marketing director at Younger Motor Cars, a dealership group in Maryland.

That comes under the human-nature category of “It’s there if you want it.”

A new software product enhances dealership website functionality and allows car shoppers to do more online.

Called DriveItNow, it allows online shoppers who complete a brief credit form to get monthly payments on specific cars they are interested in and view credit plans they qualify for.

“They know what the payment is based on their credit,” says Tarry E. Shebesta of Automobile Consumer Services and president of the business offering DriveItNow.

It makes a subsequent car transaction easier for both the buyer and the dealer, he says. “The focus now becomes selling the car, knowing the customer is able and willing to buy.”

He says the software is a step up from ones that either prequalify customers by using long forms that require sensitive personal information or rely on generic payment calculators that offer “best-guess” results.

Shebesta cites Verity Partners research indicating car shoppers want to do more online. “They also prefer to guide themselves through the sales funnel at their own pace and with more control.

“A vital part of the buying process for most consumers is credit eligibility and monthly payment affordability,” he says.

An AutoTrader.com survey says 80% of in-market shoppers find it important to stay within a budget when vehicle shopping. That’s why they want to know about monthly payments.

Engaging a car shopper sooner in the online buying process, “by showing a real payment on a real car they credit-qualify for is key to having a more qualified lead,” Shebesta says.

He says it helps “set the expectations” for that pivotal event: When the customer goes offline and into the dealership.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com