Autobytel Inc., which bills itself as the Internet’s largest independent new-car buying service, on Oct. 16 announced the cars and trucks that were requested most by its millions of online shoppers during the third sales quarter. The Autobytel Consumer Choice(SM) report, covering July through September, tells the story of an online market in flux -- with a redrawing of the battle lines between Asian and domestic auto manufacturers, significant gains by up-and-coming models over traditional category stalwarts, and a flood of popular new models energizing the market. The report also signals that Net buyers may join their offline counterparts by requesting more trucks/SUVs than passenger cars in 2003 -- which would mark the first time trucks equaled or outpaced cars online since Autobytel’s launch in 1995. "With unexpected new players and a historic deluge of new models challenging the traditional category leaders, recent speculation that the automakers will pull back on incentives seems unlikely," said Autobytel Inc. President and CEO Jeffrey Schwartz. "With so much competition in so many categories, we feel the car-buying market will continue to prove extremely consumer-friendly in the fourth quarter and beyond." Passenger Vehicles: Domestics, Mazda6 Gain on Perennial Category Leaders While vehicle purchase requests for the usual category leaders (Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and BMW 3-series) were essentially flat or even down this quarter, domestics gained significant traction.
  • The top domestic passenger vehicles posted a 21 percent gain over Q2, while the top imports dropped 6 percent.

  • Several alternative passenger vehicle choices caught the eyes of less brand-loyal, more feature-driven online shoppers -- with the Mazda6 up 37 percent vs. Q2, and the Saturn Ion posting a 10 percent gain during the quarter. The success of the Ion and Mazda6 may be attributed to the unique processes associated with Net shoppers, who tend to research in a comparative environment and generally place more vehicles in their consideration set. Minivans -- Imports Breathe New Life Into Once-Sleepy Category The minivan category -- pioneered by Chrysler and until recently a strongly domestic category -- has been reinvigorated by sporty Japanese vans. Purchase request activity for the top minivans rose 12 percent during the quarter.
  • The Dodge Caravan was the only domestic to crack Autobytel’s top-5 most requested minivan list, which was filled out by the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna (the 2003 and the 2004), and the Mazda MPV.

  • The Mazda MPV made a particularly big splash with online buyers this quarter, posting a 61 percent gain. The Nissan Quest, meanwhile, made a strong debut, ranking among the top 10 most requested minivans in its first quarter on the market.

  • While the Honda Odyssey once again ranked among Autobytel’s overall Top 10 most requested vehicles list, it dropped 4 percent in Q3 from Q2. This represented an opportunity for the 2003/2004 Sienna to gain ground.

    SUVs -- Is Bigger Still Better? Purchase request activity in the SUV category was essentially flat for the quarter. Although the usual domestic leaders -- the Chevy Tahoe and Trailblazer and the Ford Explorer -- continued to lead comfortably, Q3 saw the stirrings of what many predict will be stepped-up competition from Asian SUVs.

  • SUV imports enjoyed a 28 percent increase during the quarter -- while domestics dropped 7 percent. Autobytel's Net shoppers showed renewed interest in the Toyota Highlander and the Honda CR-V, which was actually the only model among the top 10 most requested SUVs to post a quarter-over-quarter gain in purchase requests.

  • The largest domestic SUVs, on the other hand, were the primary drivers behind the drop-off in domestic purchase request share during the quarter -- with requests for the GMC Yukon down 15 percent and requests for the Ford Expedition down 8 percent. The Cadillac Escalade, meanwhile, dropped 19 percent in the luxury category. The Hummer proved a major exception to the rule, however -- enjoying nearly a 200 percent gain (albeit with a relatively low volume compared to the category’s leaders).

    Trucks -- The War Heats Up The truck category continued to explode online, driven by the Chevy Silverado and Ford F-150. Dominating the field were the F-150, Silverado and Dodge Ram -- which enjoyed a 56 percent share of the total purchase request activity generated by the top 10 trucks.

  • The 2003 F-150 was the biggest mover, posting an 11 percent gain during the quarter and a 63 percent increase versus Q3 2002. (And this doesn’t include strong initial numbers for the just-introduced 2004 F-150).

  • With the Nissan Titan, the large-size Toyota Tundra, and the 2004 F-150 crowding this already strong field, Autobytel analysts project that 2003 will be the first year in company history that online customers submit more purchase requests for trucks/SUVs than passenger cars.

    Fuel Economy -- Online Shoppers Discount Fuel-Efficiency at the Point of Purchase Online shoppers continued their 2003 trend of abandoning vehicles with low-emissions/high-mileage systems -- despite continuing high gas prices. During the quarter the Honda Civic Hybrid fell 32 percent, the VW Jetta sedan (diesel) dropped 33 percent, and the 2003 Toyota Prius was off 16 percent (although this may be pegged to the pending introduction of the highly-anticipated 2004 Prius). 2003 Autobytel Consumer Choice Awards(SM) In addition to shedding light on online consumer trends as they unfold, Autobytel’s Q3 tally also tracks the frontrunners in the race for the 2003 Autobytel Consumer Choice Awards(SM), which will be determined at the end of the sales year based on the millions of vehicle purchase requests submitted throughout the year by online car buyers. Some of the leaders at the three-quarter mark include the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150, and Toyota Camry. The race is on -- with the new 2004 F-150 currently enjoying big gains on the heels of a recent redesign. Stay tuned for final 2003 results in January! For more information, visit