Not too many people order their new car or truck over the Internet today - only about 5% of purchases are ex-pected to be made that way in 2000. So how important is it for dealers and manufacturers to maintain a state-of-the-art website?
It's critical, says Gordon Wangers, managing partner in AMCI, a Vista, CA-based automotive marketing consulting firm that studied how auto buyers relate to the Internet.
A couple of years ago, websites didn't matter much, Mr. Wangers says. But now, lack of a good one not only will hurt dealers and automakers in their efforts to draw in customers, a bad website may end up turning buyers away.
More than a third of Internet shoppers surveyed crossed a vehicle off their list as a direct result of information they found on the Internet, says a J.D. Power survey.
"If the dealer or the manufacturer has a schlocky web site, the customer won't go there (to buy)," Mr. Wangers says.
The AMCI study, which polled 300 consumers in the San Diego area about their reactions to 41 manufacturers' websites, estimates 50%-65% of new car buyers now check the Internet before visiting dealer showrooms.
AMCI also discovered that car and truck buyers value style over substance in websites. And they want to see pictures of the vehicle they're thinking about buying.
"They want ease of navigation, good graphic design," Mr. Wangers says. "If there is incorrect information, they don't really care."
More than half surveyed say if manufacturers want to drive more buyers into dealer showrooms, they should focus on improving their website's overall design and layout. More than 40% indicate they wanted improvements in site navigation.
Mr. Wangers says consumers want pricing information, as well - and they're going to third party sites to find it if they must.
That's why the National Automobile Dealers Association ended years-long resistance and began publishing wholesale prices on its website.
It's also why AMCI is urging that manu-facturers generate Internet traffic by publishing the "street price" for vehicles - what dealers likely will retail the car for in specific areas of the country - on their websites.
Dealers, Mr. Wangers adds, should supply a list of their inventory to make it easy for consumers to find the exact vehicle they want.
The survey found that European importers had the best websites when it comes to providing product details, with BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and Volvo taking the top spots. In pricing and purchasing information, Jaguar, BMW, Isuzu, Mercury and Mercedes led all others.
Those surveyed say BMW, Isuzu, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Porsche provided the most functionality in their sites.
Rated the top five overall were BMW, Volvo, Toyota, Mercedes and Jaguar.
Weighing down the bottom of the list were such exclusive marques as Rolls-Royce (dead last), Lamborghini (39), Aston Martin (38), and Ferrari (35), but their rather exclusive clientele likely aren't making purchasing decisions based on what they see on the web.
Mainstream brands near the bottom included Saturn - a surprise considering its emphasis on customer service - at No.40, Saab (37), Suzuki (36) and Mazda (34).
Those manufacturers needn't despair, however. It takes relatively little time to turn a website from a dog to a winner, Mr. Wangers points out. Volvo, for example, jumped up several spots from its year-ago ranking.
"You can make a quantum leap overnight," Mr. Wangers says, adding that the fast-changing technology also means manufacturers - and dealers - need to freshen up their web sites about every six months.
David Zoia is editorial director of Ward's Automotive Reports.