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Lonnie Reeder, 39, hadn't bought a car since 1987, when it took close to four tense hours just to hammer out the price. But her recent experience was vastly different. This time, the salesman was expecting Reeder and her husband, Frank, and the price was already set. "It was a done deal within a half an hour, and we figure we saved several thousand dollars," says Reeder, a freelance video producer in San Jose, Calif.

Reeder's secret? CUC International's AutoVantage. CUC, the Stamford (Conn.) membership service that hooks consumers up with discounted prices on everything from refrigerators to VCRs, started its auto service in 1988. Members pay $49 a year for access to reports on everything from car features to safety. Once they make a decision, they dial CUC's toll-free number. CUC gives them a firm price for the model and options they want from one of the 2,000 dealers in its network. They can buy from that dealer or use the quote to negotiate elsewhere.

AutoVantage also has online areas in the major services, such as America Online, where members can log on for information on features, safety and repair records, and the dealer's invoice price. That's where Reeder found AutoVantage. "Convenience was a big issue," she says. "Being able to log on and just browse to my heart's content was great." Reeder also called CUC's customer representatives regularly with questions before deciding on a Honda Civic.

First, though, she and her husband went to a local Honda dealer who wasn't affiliated with AutoVantage to take a test drive. They knew a lot about the car but didn't yet have a CUC price quote. Reeder and her husband tried bargaining, but the hard-selling dealer wouldn't budge: He wanted $18,000, without tax and licenses. Reeder says negotiations were tense. "It almost came to a name-calling situation," she says.

The next day, she called AutoVantage and got a referral to a network dealer for the same model with the same options. The total price, including tax and license, for her turquoise Honda? About $16,000. Reeder says her husband will be in the market for a new car later this year. Don't expect to see him roaming the showrooms.BY LORI BONGIORNO IN NEW YORK

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