ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois - Since the late 1990s, use of the Internet as an aid to making automotive purchase decisions has grown impressively. In 1998, according to J.D. Power and Associates, 25 percent of shoppers did research on the Internet. By 2005, the figure grew to 67 percent.
Kelley Blue Book has become one of the foremost providers of information for new- and used-car shoppers. In fact, they claim to have been the Number One site for the past eight years in terms of number of visitors - well ahead of Edmunds.com.
Many of those visitors simply want to know "What's the Blue Book value of my car," said Rick Wainschel, vice-president of marketing research and brand communications. Wainschel and Jack R. Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book (KBB), spoke to members of the Midwest Automotive Media Association in March 2006 about vehicle buyers, citing their survey of Automotive Shopper Attitudes and Insights. This special online survey gathered information from 406 consumers who were considering the purchase or lease of a new vehicle.
"Kelley Blue Book is not a fun site," Wainschel advised, explaining that 85 percent of visitors to the new-car section are "in-market" shopers. In fact, 87 percent of those visitors plan to buy within the next six months, and 20 percent expect to make a purchase decision within a week.
Asked which manufacturers they were considering, respondents in all age groups picked Toyota as Number One, followed by Honda. General Motors came in third, ahead of Ford and DaimlerChrysler. Honda topped the list among younger shoppers (age 18-34).
Toyota and Honda scored strongly in innovation, by a substantial margin. Those two also topped the list of manufacturers in terms of economy - though the term was not rigorously defined. In environmental friendliness, too, Honda and Toyota finished well ahead of the others. The pair also led in perceptions of quality, fuel efficiency, and "value for money."
Toyota was ranked the most family-oriented manufactuers, followed by Ford, GM, and Honda. DaimlerChrysler got the nod for stylish vehicles, with Toyota and Honda ranked second and third, ahead of Volkswagen, Ford, and GM.
After reading this survey, Nerad said, "you have to be fearful for the American automakers."
Nerad and Wainschel also presented survey data from the Autovibes Tracking Report, which gathered material from 1,500 in-market shoppers. Gasoline prices spiked as a factor in purchase decisions back in August of 2005, after a national price hike of 41 cents per gallon, but the impact of fuel costs soon began to recede. Just a month or two later, Wainschel noted, there was "sort of a collective shrug of the shoulders."
Wainschel believes there will be no real effect unless gasoline reaches $3.50 to $4.00 a gallon, and stays there for three to five months. "People need a lot more to shock them out of" their regular buying patterns, he suggested.
Interest in hybrid cars continues, but the extra amount that people are willing to pay for one, compared to a conventional gasoline model, has shrunk. "The hysteria, the panic to get your hands on a hybrid" has declined, Wainschel said. "It's a pocketbook issue, not an environmental one." Respondents expressed concern about the longevity of hybrid powertrains, due to their "complicated technology."
Only 48 percent of respondents in this survey were aware of E85 (ethanol) as a fuel for automobiles. "In some areas," Nerad said, "it's virtually nonexistent. Beyond altruism, there is no real reason for the consumer to do anything other than use gasoline."
Just under two-thirds of respondents said they would consider a flex-fuel vehicle (which runs on E85 or gasoline), while 57 percent might buy a hybrid. Only 29 percent expressed interest in a diesel engine.
Which new models are gaining traction with consumers? At the time of the survey, the Ford Fusion was growing in awareness and favorable response. Among subcompacts, the Toyota Yaris drew attention, but awareness remained low. Other leading new models included the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Pontiac Solstice, Infiniti M35, Buick Lucerne, and Land Rover LR3.
Kelley Blue Book, which is best known for new- and used-car pricing, is 80 years old. Les Kelley, a California used-car dealer, started the company in 1926. During World War II, Kelley Blue Book was certified as the official pricing guide for the U.S. government. Through the postwar years, Kelley was best known for its printed used-car price guides. Ten years ago, the company went online at www.kbb.com, and now claims 10 million visitors per month.
"Trust and integrity are the two watchwords of our organization," Nerad said. "Our job is to facilitate the transaction."
Disclosure: Tirekicking Today editor Jim Flammang is a regular contributor of vehicle reviews to the Kelley Blue Book web site (www.kbb.com).