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Kleiner Perkins gives green light to online car site

The top flight venture capital group is expected to announce tomorrow that it has joined with one of the nation's largest automobile dealer networks to launch Greenlight, an online car superstore.

Top flight venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is expected to announce tomorrow that it has joined with one of the nation's largest automobile dealer networks to launch Greenlight, an online car retailer.

Greenlight plans to expand into the nation's top 50 markets by April 1, said Tom Gibson, chairman of Greenlight co-founder Asbury Automotive Group. Greenlight already is selling cars in Greensboro, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Orlando, Fla.; Fort Pierce, Fla.; and Atlanta.

Both Kleiner Perkins and Asbury Automotive Group have invested in Greenlight. Conshohocken, Penn.-based Asbury owns or is invested in some 100 dealerships across the nation, which will be the backbone of Greenlight's service. However, the company plans to work with dealers outside of Asbury's dealer network, Gibson said.

Greenlight joins an increasingly competitive market dominated by companies such as Autoweb and Autobytel. Recent entrees to the market include CarsDirect.com, which sells cars directly to consumers, and CarPrices.com, which promises to provide consumers with multiple bids from different dealers.

Some 40 percent of new car buyers are using the Internet to shop for cars, according to J.D. Power & Associates. Meanwhile, Forrester Research estimates that actual online sales of automobiles will jump from about $400 million this year to $16.6 billion in 2004. The latter figure represents some 4 percent of the total car market.

Greenlight is only the latest in a series of Web sites that attempt to connect car buyers with new cars. "First-generation" auto sites such as Autoweb and Autobytel refer customers looking to buy a car to local dealers, which then send price quotes to consumers. More recently, "second-generation" sites such as CarsDirect.com and CarOrder.com have come online, cutting out salespeople and allowing consumers to select and order their car online, with delivery direct to their home.

According to Gibson, Greenlight is a "third-generation" car sales site, which combines the strengths of the two earlier models. Like Autobytel, Greenlight works with dealers such as Asbury to sell cars, but like CarsDirect.com, the service allows consumers to order and buy cars directly through the site.

"The dealers are very much involved," he said.

Greenlight may benefit from its relationship with Asbury, but it will have a hard time standing out among the growing number of online car sites, said Chris Denove, director of consulting operations for J.D. Power and Associates. Greenlight appears to be very similar to sites such as CarsDirect.com, Denove said.

Although CarsDirect.com purports to sell cars online, the paperwork involved in actual purchases goes through local car dealerships, and consumers often have to pick up their cars from the dealers, Denove said.

"Somebody's going to have to show me how Greenlight is materially different," Denove said.