Maryann Keller left her job as head of Priceline dot-com's auto division which had tried - rather unsuccessfully - to sell vehicles on-line.

She left after her Priceline staff was slashed in half - sign of another dot-com in deep trouble.

Ms. Keller, a former auto analyst, left Priceline with a parting shot about on-line car buying.

"For car buying, the Internet is an idea whose time has not yet come and may never," she says.

It was probably a good time to leave if she felt that way.

She notes, however, that there's a big difference between car shopping and car buying on-line.

Shopping is researching vehicles, checking out dealership inventory - and then going to the dealership armed with knowledge.

There's a big difference between that and clicking a buy button on the computer screen to purchase a $25,000 vehicle on line. Few customers are comfortable making a major purchase that way.

And Ms. Keller is right: it's doubtful that large numbers of Internet users will ever be completely comfortable doing that.

Dealers get some respect... finally: In interviewing the Big Three's top auto executives for our annual State of the Industry feature, it struck me how sincere they seem when it comes to working with dealers and keeping dealer relations on an even keel.

Sure, auto executives in the history of the industry have been known to provide lip service in voicing magnanimous but, alas, insincere opinions about dealer concerns.

But GM's Richard Wagoner, Ford's Jac Nasser and Chrysler Group's James Holden (who just lost his job; more about that in a minute) seemed determined to get along with dealers while at the same time recognizing that there may be differences along the way.

Part of that newfound good will is learning from bitter experience. More than a few auto executives have seen a questionable dealer initiative bomb. (Who can forget GM last year wanting to buy up to 800 dealerships?)

Part of it is that dealers, to their credit, have organized themselves into a potent group. When dealer associations take a stand, people tend to take note. Nobody wants to mess with dealers as a group.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, today's auto executives have come to realize that dealers are a vital last link in the chain.

You can do everything right in planning, designing and building vehicles. But if you don't have that strong last link - selling the car in a professional way by experts who know what they are doing (in other words, dealers) - then look out.

Modern-minded auto executives realize the importance of dealers - none too soon.

Differences in CEOs' personalities: Incidentally, it's interesting how different in personalities Mssr. Wagoner, Nasser and Holden are.

Mr. Wagoner comes across as a friendly next-door neighbor who may wander over to your house to chat about how the hometown team is doing.

When we interviewed him at GM headquarters on Oct. 31, he wanted to make sure he got home in time to take his youngest son trick or treating.

Mr. Nasser seems intense without being tense as he answers questions in that Australian accent of his. Although he favors Sevile Row suits, when he speaks in that accent you expect him to be wearing one of those Australian bushwacker hats.

He's the type of executive who will be in the office at 4 or 5 a.m. after staying out late at a business dinner.

A Ford manager told me about the first time he met Mr. Nasser's father, a former restaurauter, who had flown in from Australia to visit his son in Detroit.

"I told Jac's dad, `You're probably tired from your long trip.' And he said, `Are you kidding? At my restaurant, I'd start working at 4 a.m. and close up at 11 p.m.' When he said that, I realized where Jac got his energy."

When we interviewed Mr. Holden, things weren't going well for Chrysler, which had lost more than $500 million in the third quarter and which was under pressure from his DaimlerChrysler bosses in Stuttgart, Germany.

Yet Mr. Holden remained cool under that pressure. He politely and articulately answered some tough questions we put to him.

Speaking of the big third quarter loss, he said, "This is Chrysler's problem and Chrysler should fix it."

Well, yes, but...

As it turned out, he got the boot less than two weeks after we interviewed him. A German from Daimler's truck division replaced him.