AGOURA HILLS, Calif.—Five automotive manufacturer Web sites that ranked below industry average among consumers in 2000 have made significant strides in the past 12 months and are now among the top-ranked sites, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2001 Manufacturers Web site Evaluation StudySM released last week.

In fact, two sites that tied for top honors in the second annual publication of this study¾ BMW (www.bmwusa.com) and Honda (www.honda2001.com)—ranked below industry average in the 2000 study. Rounding out the top five are Audi, Toyota, and Lincoln, as well as Mercedes-Benz and Oldsmobile, which also tied.

"It is no surprise that there are wide fluctuations in the Web site rankings," said Chris Denove, partner at J.D. Power and Associates. "Web sites are unlike automobiles, which remain basically unchanged year after year. Manufacturers can fix a specific problem on a Web site, or totally change its entire look in a short period of time. We fully expect the sites that rank below industry average in the 2001 study will make the appropriate changes so that they are more responsive to consumer needs in the future."

Study respondents evaluated Web sites on measures of information content; Web site appearance and functionality; vehicle pictures; and special effects.

The information content measure is the most important, accounting for 48 percent of a site’s overall score. It includes the "hard data" about vehicles, such as prices and specifications. BMW, Honda and most of the other top-ranked sites performed well on this important factor. BMW scored particularly high for its ability to display information about options and features, and Honda received high marks for the way it allows consumers to request price quotes from dealers. Respondents favored both sites for the way each allows shoppers to calculate monthly payments at different interest rates.

The Web site appearance and functionality factor accounts for only 29 percent of the score, but includes the ease of navigation attribute. This attribute itself contributes 11 percent to the final score¾ more than any other individual attribute. Hyundai (www.hyundai.com) received the highest rating score for ease of navigation.

J.D. Power and Associates estimates that automobile manufacturers will spend more than $9 billion during 2001 to drive traffic to showrooms through traditional advertising means, however, the amount spent by manufacturers for online marketing efforts equates to less than 1 percent. "Additional investment in this area may be appropriate since the study once again shows that a well-executed Web site will drive traffic to showrooms," said Mr. Denove.

Forty-one percent of respondents who rated their experience on a site as a "10," on a 1-to-10 scale became more likely to test-drive a vehicle after visiting the manufacturer Web site, according to the study.

"The study shows that it is especially important for less-established brands to find a way to get people to take a look at their sites," said Mr. Denove. "Consumer opinions about these brands are less entrenched, and the study shows that Web sites are particularly effective at improving perceptions of less-established brands."

In general, consumers are very satisfied with manufacturers Web sites as tools to learn about vehicles. Eighty-seven percent of those evaluating Web sites said they were more useful than traditional dealership brochures.

Study respondents were Internet users who plan to purchase a new vehicle during the next two years. Survey participants were recruited from visitors to the Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com) Web site in addition to other sources. The kbb.com site was chosen as a primary means of recruitment based on the popularity of its Web site among actual vehicle shoppers. The study contains more than 8,000 individual Web site evaluations.