As more people just like you turn to Internet research in your quest for a new vehicle, car companies are stepping up with websites geared to providing all the information you'll need - and then some - to make informed decisions.
Websites that focus on user-friendliness and usability over flash and blatant and tiring brand promotion are more likely to see customers enter their showrooms intent on taking a vehicle for a test drive, suggests a study by J.D. Power and Associates.
Power's 2010 Manufacturer website evaluation study found that Honda and Kia rank highest with American buyers for being "prime examples" of particularly straightforward sites that focus on providing appropriate information for shoppers easily and quickly."
Both sites performed well in each of the four measures examined: speed; appearance; navigation; and information/content, said J.D. Power director of marketing and media research, Arianne Walker.
Following Honda and Kia in the top five rankings are Mazda, Acura and Infiniti.
In a sign that most manufacturers "get it," nearly two thirds of the 33 websites evaluated ranked at or above the industry average, Walker noted.
The lowest-scoring websites, she said, paid more attention to edgy, brand-centric design and their own marketing objectives, "rather than focusing on traditional ease of navigation and user access to information and content to meet shoppers needs."
A similar J.D. Power survey undertaken in Canada revealed that potential buyers who like a carmaker's Web site are more likely to test drive a vehicle from that company's lineup.
Spokesman Ryan Robinson pointed to the growing importance of a carmaker's website in attracting prospective buyers, finding that 60 per cent of shoppers in the market for a new vehicle in the next year "have already visited a manufacturer's website."
And twice as many shoppers in the market for a vehicle visit a manufacturer's site compared with a third-party site, Robinson said.
As a result, it is crucial for manufacturers to provide an "effective and satisfying" site, particularly when it is likely to result in increased showroom traffic.
Lexus ranked highest in customer satisfaction in the Canadian survey, with Mazda second and Toyota third.
Of those surveyed, 40 per cent were also more interested in broader site functionality, such as the ability to schedule a sales or service appointment or complete a credit application online, compared with 30 per cent only a year ago.
- Acura's elegant U.S. site, also a J.D. Power pick, is reflective of its cars. Roll over the vehicle name and the information window automatically drops down. The "interactive showroom" allows you to spin the vehicles on a turntable for a 360-degree view. If the Web site can do this, the cars must be cool, right?
- The U.S. Mazda site ranked behind Honda and Kia. When you arrive, a little green creature speeds around the page. Cute . . . The rollover menu down the left is particularly quick to react, although once you click to see more about your vehicle, the all-important menu is overpowered by a collection of seemingly unrelated information, such as "Play DriverVille," which links to a Facebook page.
- Easily as elegant as the Acura site, the U.S. Infiniti page also features information that drops down when you roll over the vehicle you want to find out more about, but it's artsy and we found it a little slow. The site, a top-five pick for J.D. Power, is highly detailed with excellent photography, but it really requires you to click around to get at the tiny bits of information.
- Kia's website was ranked in the top five in the United States by J.D. Power, along with Honda, Acura, Infiniti and Mazda, for the same reasons: getting concise and clear information across to viewers in a speedy manner. The vehicles switch on the screen in front of your eyes and the handy "explore" button is large and relatively intuitive, but it could read "see more."