More than four out of five car buyers shop online first, according to a new survey by Chrome Systems Inc., a subsidiary of DealerTrack Holdings Inc.

The poll says 83% of respondents indicate they were likely to shop for a vehicle online before making a purchasing or leasing decision.

Those visitors to automotive websites cite price and preferred equipment selection as leading factors in their purchase decisions.

“The need for a strong online presence is greater than ever as price, availability and convenience can convert an online review of inventory into a relationship with a dealer,” says Amit Maheshwari, general manager-DealerTrack Data Services.

The annual survey highlights significant shifts in the way consumers are researching and purchasing vehicles in 2010 compared with the previous year. Among key findings:

  • /Necessity has become a major factor, an apparent result of a struggling economy. Fewer respondents purchased a vehicle simply because they wanted something new (21% in 2010, down from 32% in 2009). The No.1 reason cited for getting a new vehicle is that the replacement was unreliable or out of service.
  • Vehicle availability influences choice of dealerships. Twenty percent of respondents chose a dealer based on specific online inventory listings. That’s up from 15% last year.
  • Dealer loyalty is eroding. Only 24% said they selected a dealership because they or someone they knew had previously done business there. That’s down from 37% in 2009.
  • Brand loyalty is diminishing. Consumers are less likely to want to purchase the same brand of car they previously owned (35% in 2010 vs. 39% last year).
  • Concerns about fuel economy have waned with the stabilization of gas prices. Fuel economy is critical to about half the consumers, (54%, down from 60% in 2009). But vehicle price (74%), body style (68%) and overall appearance and styling (59%) rank higher.
  • “It is no surprise that the sluggish economy has changed consumers’ vehicle purchasing habits,” Maheshwari says. “Building upon the results from last year’s survey, we are able to see marked shifts in consumer vehicle-purchasing trends.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com