The U.S. car-buying public wants bang for its buck and auto makers would be wise to heed the trend, warns a New York-based digital marketing-services agency.

Seven vehicles on Zeta Interactive’s top 10 “most-buzzed” nameplates for 2010 are new to the listing. Brands such as Mercedes and Lexus have been replaced by Hyundai and Volkswagen.

“The Audi A3 is the only car there that’s a luxury car in the top 10,” says Zeta CEO Al DiGuido. “The shift has been pretty dramatic.”

Topping the list, gleaned from mentions on select regions of the “blogosphere,” is the Hyundai Elantra compact sedan, which is all-new for model-year ’11. Joining the Elantra at No.4 is its smaller, unassuming stablemate, the Accent, making Hyundai one of two brands with a pair of top-finishers.

The Honda Accord and Civic are second and ninth, respectively.

The prevalence of economical cars – the Kia Sorento is the only light truck on the list – suggests the U.S. market is beginning to resemble that of its northern neighbor.

Historically, frugality rules new-vehicle buying in Canada. While the Civic ranks sixth in U.S. sales through November, it is the second best-selling vehicle in Canada, according to Ward’s data.

DiGuido suggests thriftiness is taking hold in the U.S.

“Whether you’re talking about consumer products, consumer electronics, travel or auto, it seems like that’s the common theme,” he tells Ward’s.

“People are still not thinking that we’re out of the woods. They’re looking to get price/value. We think the trend’s going to continue.”

Zeta’s data is derived from mentions on blogs and social-media websites such as Facebook.

Algorithms are used to sort the wheat from the chaff so all that remains are the musings of “reputable” Internet users, DiGuido says, citing the descriptive “black” as a yardstick for Zeta’s accuracy.

It is one of three words associated with mentions of the Nissan Altima midsize sedan, which ranks No.5 on Zeta’s buzz list.

“It would probably indicate that of all the colors the Altima is selling, black would probably be one of the colors that sells the best,” DiGuido suggests.

A check with Nissan North America Inc. spokesman Brian Brockman confirms to Ward’s black is the most popular color choice by U.S. Altima buyers.

DiGuido’s message to auto makers? Heed traffic on the information superhighway or get run over.

“The blogosphere has truly become representative of the consumer marketplace in the U.S., if not worldwide,” he says. “Five years ago, you would have said, ‘This is a real small segment of people who are very vociferous.’”

Not so now. Zeta counts some 200 million bloggers.

“Marketers who do not pay attention to the words and the thoughts and the opinions and the preferences (expressed) on the blogosphere are doing so at their own peril,” DiGuido claims.

“The automotive industry, as in all other industries, needs to wake up to the fact that these are not the rantings of a small segment of the marketplace. This is your customer talking here.”

But not, apparently, the buying kind. Zeta’s rankings bear little resemblance to today’s top-sellers with just three nameplates – Accord, Civic and Altima – common to the list of best-selling U.S.-market vehicles through November.

The Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado fullsize pickups ranking first and second, according to Ward’s data. The Toyota Camry, also absent from the Zeta list, is a distant third.

Rounding out Zeta’s top 10 vehicles:

  • Ford Fusion (No.3)
  • Audi A3 (No.6)
  • Volkswagen Jetta (No.7)
  • Mercury Milan (No.8)
  • Kia Sorento (No.10)

The Accent’s fourth-place ranking surprises even a Hyundai insider. The car was carryover for ’10, but consumers will see an all-new version in 2011, perhaps at the New York auto show, Ward’s learns.

DiGuido says the Accent likely piggybacked on the Elantra’s popularity, with shoppers asking themselves, “what else is in the family that makes sense for what I have to spend?”

Zeta’s list roughly parallels another measure of Web traffic. Kelley Blue Book today releases its list of most-researched vehicles. It includes, starting with the most popular: Kelley says in a statement the Toyota brand suffered compared with past years because of quality woes.

  • Accord
  • Civic
  • Toyota Camry
  • Honda CR-V
  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Altima
  • Honda Pilot
  • Ford Mustang
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Toyota RAV4

Says Zeta: “Of all auto brands, none experienced as dramatic a shift in negative buzz as Toyota. Overall buzz was the fifth-worst of all brands in any (industry) in 2010.”

emayne@wardsauto.com