Autobytel Inc., an Internet new car buying service, has announced the vehicles that were requested most by the company's online car buyers during the first sales quarter of 2003, shedding light on several unfolding online buying trends. According to the company, new models and enhancements made a big splash with Internet buyers, while passenger cars, in general, are shaping up to be significantly more popular than trucks/SUVs. The announcements signal the front runners in the race for the 2003 Autobytel Consumer Choice Awards, which will be determined at the end of the sales year based on Purchase Request data collected by Autobytel on a quarterly basis.
The company says the first quarter highlighted many key differences between online car buyers and traditional buyers. Despite the well publicized pre-war and wartime industry downturn, online auto shoppers are still shopping-and buying-at a brisk pace. One out of three of all U.S. Internet users visited an auto site in February 1. The company also said during that month, one of the worst for the industry in five years, visits to Autobytel websites rose 95 percent.
According to the company, the Nissan Altima, the 2002 Overall Consumer Choice winner, is once again in the running for top honors. The redesigned Honda Accord has also emerged as a very popular contender, as have the recently redesigned Camry and the upgraded Silverado. This preference for new or redesigned models (the Altima underwent a dramatic redesign in 2002) suggests that online consumers are responding very favorably to enhancements made by the automakers to boost top-selling vehicles, says the company.
The company further said that the front-runners in the year-over-year growth category underscore the attractiveness of new model enhancements in the first quarter. Four out of the top six brands that achieved the biggest percentage gains in online vehicle Purchase Requests in the first quarter feature new models: the Hummer H2, Infiniti G35, MINI Cooper and Volvo XC90.
In the compact category, the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe are giving traditional leaders Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen New Beetle and Chevrolet Cavalier a run for their money, says the company. The new Volvo XC90 and Acura MDX, meanwhile, ranked among the five most requested luxury vehicles.
The company says a look at the overall Q1 sales leaders reveals that online shoppers are making some very different buying decisions than their traditional counterparts, with a pronounced online trend toward passenger cars (more below). In the truck category, however, online and offline shoppers are closely aligned in their preference for domestic trucks over import trucks-with traditional favorites Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado dueling it out, once again, for top honors. Overall, only one import, the Toyota Tacoma, ranked among Autobytel's 10 most requested trucks.
The company says used SUVs are scoring big on the Internet, as aggressive Big 3 incentives on new trucks and SUVs cause their late-model counterparts to depreciate-often markedly-resulting in good values for buyers. Three of the top five used vehicle model/years are Big 3 SUVs (six out of the top 10 overall)-this in a category traditionally dominated online by import sedans. Notably, five of Autobytel's top 10 most popular used vehicle model/years are Fords.
Around the New Year, as war jitters heightened and gas prices skyrocketed, research activity on the Autobytel websites concerning information about fuel-efficient vehicles (including hybrid vehicle research) rose. This heightened interest in fuel-efficiency among Autobytel shoppers is translating into big year-over-year gains in Purchase Requests for hybrid vehicles-with Purchase Requests up 58 percent, for example, for the Toyota Prius, says the company. Yet despite strong first-quarter showings, both the Prius and the Honda Insight are losing online market share to the Honda Civic Hybrid-which was the dominant force behind the Autobytel Q1 hybrid spike.
According to the company, the Civic's strong showing supports a recent Autobytel website survey that reported a strong consumer preference for hybrid versions of currently popular models. The survey, coupled with significant online interest in hybrids, suggests that a significant rise in U.S. hybrid sales (already up 50 percent industry-wide in Q1) may be just around the corner, as major automakers prepare to roll out hybrid-powered versions of several of their established, popular models. Ford has plans to introduce the Escape Hybrid later this year, and GM is developing hybrid versions of the Chevy Malibu sedan (for 2006) and the Equinox (for 2007). An advanced hybrid system will be available in the Saturn VUE beginning in 2005. Lexus plans to unveil the first luxury-branded hybrid, the RX330, in 2005.
The popularity of the diesel Volkswagen Jetta TDI (49 mph/hwy), another big year-over-year mover in Autobytel's fuel economy category, further confirms consumers' willingness to adopt non-traditional, fuel-efficient options of popular models. It may also signal revived interest in diesel-powered vehicles, says the company.
About Autobytel Inc.
Autobytel Inc., an Internet automotive marketing services company, says it helps retailers sell cars and manufacturers build brands through marketing, advertising and CRM (customer relationship management) programs. The company owns and operates the automotive websites Autobytel.com, Autoweb.com, Carsmart.com and popular automotive research center, AutoSite.com, as well as AIC (Automotive Information Center), a provider of automotive marketing data and technology.