Autobytel has today announced its latest Consumer Choice report, revealing the cars and trucks that were requested most by its online shoppers during the third quarter of 2004.

SUV Freefall Cushioned by Incentives, Stable Gas Prices and Strong Demand for Smaller, More Fuel-Efficient Entries

The company says that last quarter, the big automotive story — online and off — was spiralling fuel costs and plummeting SUV demand. Thanks in part to more stable gas prices and hefty, well-marketed incentives, Purchase Requests for SUVs rose 30% versus Q2, although demand remained well below Q1 levels.

Despite steep incentives on big domestic SUVs, it was actually the smaller, more fuel-efficient import entries that led the Q3 SUV rebound. For example, Purchase Requests for the Toyota Highlander and Honda CR-V were up 23% and 14% respectively, while requests fell 23% for the Cadillac Escalade and 18% for the GMC Yukon. The Hummer H2, typified domestic SUV dynamic online in Q3 — with requests up 24% versus Q2 (buoyed by major incentives), but still down 35% versus Q1.

Demand for ‘Family-Friendly’ Vehicles Isn’t Dying — It’s Evolving; Minivans and Crossovers Pick up SUV Slack

Whereas Autobytel shoppers flocked to smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles in Q2 — with the Toyota Prius enjoying torrid Purchase Request activity — demand for more ‘family friendly’ vehicles rebounded in Q3. In addition to the rising popularity of what are technically “crossover” vehicles — SUV-like designs built on car platforms (e.g., the RAV4, CRV, Highlander, etc.) — Purchase Requests for minivans also rose 32% during the quarter — up 6% for the Toyota Sienna, 7% for the Chrysler Town & Country, 39% for the Honda Odyssey, and 41% for the Ford Freestar.

“Overall, we’re seeing a maturation of the family vehicle market,” said Autobytel President and CEO Jeffrey Schwartz. “After years of an SUV ‘image’ craze, followed by an equally strong counter-reaction to soaring summer gas prices, the market has found a good, sustainable balance in a new breed of roomy yet relatively fuel-efficient SUVs, minivans and crossovers.”

Luxury Category Explodes Online

While Q3 luxury vehicle sales rose significantly industry-wide, Purchase Requests for luxury cars and trucks absolutely soared on Autobytel sites — up 30% versus Q2. Luxury SUVs were a key driver behind this activity, with Requests for the Lexus RX 330 up 25%, Requests for the Acura MDX up 31% and Requests for the Lincoln Navigator up 13% (defying the continued, if mitigated, downslide of most other large SUVs). Overall, the biggest part of Autobytel’s luxury category growth was in the lower and middle segments, as Requests for entry-level luxury cars and trucks grew nearly 17% year over year.

“With 90% of all luxury buyers now shopping online — approaching 100% for some import brands — we’re in a unique position to gauge what appears to be a rise in auto consumer confidence,” adds Schwartz. “Overall, the more affordable segment of the luxury spectrum is shaping up to be a real sweet spot on our sites.”

Passenger Cars Still Biggest Gainers; Perennial Favorites Accord, Civic and Altima Challenged by Hot Mazda3 and Mazda6; 2005 Mustang Already On Buyers’ Radar

Passenger cars remained the fastest-growing Autobytel category in Q3, proving that the battle between cars and trucks/SUVs doesn’t have to be a ‘zero sum’ game. The traditional online favorites — Honda Accord, Honda Civic and Nissan Altima — continued to lead the way. Mazda, however, continued to make major inroads with the Mazda3 (up 15% versus Q2 and 33% versus Q1) and the Mazda6 (up 4% versus Q2 and 28% versus Q1). Requests for the 2004 Ford Mustang rose 4% during the quarter as dealers prepared to introduce the 2005 model. Notably, the 2005 Mustang, which debuts this month, received more Purchase Requests in September than the 2004 MINI, which seems to have suffered a sales hangover following a hot debut — resulting in a 53% drop-off in Requests.

News to the Spiffs Skeptics – Incentives More Effective Than Ever, According to Recent Autobytel Consumer Survey

One likely reason for the Q3 surge in Autobytel Purchase Requests across categories is the fact that manufacturer incentives increased significantly versus Q2, reaching historical highs in September. Despite critics’ claims that ever-heftier incentives are losing their punch, an Autobytel survey conducted in late September suggests that their impact on car buying decisions may, in fact, be on the rise. Two out of three shoppers surveyed said incentives are having more of an impact today than ever before, and 46% said incentives were the PRIMARY factor in their decision to shop for a new vehicle. Sixty-two percent, meanwhile, said they were considering taking advantage of rebates to upgrade to a vehicle that would otherwise be unaffordable — suggesting another possible contributing factor in the growth of Purchase Requests for entry-level vehicles in the luxury category on Autobytel sites.

Following is a preview of the top-5 Most Requested Vehicles by category on Autobytel sites.

   Most Requested Vehicles Overall
   1) 2004 Honda Accord
   2) 2004 Honda Civic
   3) 2004 Ford F-150
   4) 2004 Ford Explorer
   5) Chevrolet Silverado

   Most Requested Passenger Cars
   1) 2004 Honda Accord
   2) 2005 Toyota Camry
   3) 2005 Nissan Altima
   4) 2005 Toyota Corolla
   5) 2004 Mazda Mazda6

   Most Requested SUVs
   1) 2004 Ford Explorer
   2) 2004 Ford Expedition
   3) 2004 Honda Pilot
   4) 2004 Honda CR-V
   5) 2004 Toyota Highlander

   Most Requested Luxury Vehicles
   1) 2004 BMW 3 Series
   2) 2004 Lexus RX
   3) 2004 Acura TL
   4) 2004 Acura MDX
   5) 2004 Audi A4

   Most Requested Trucks
   1) 2004 Ford F-150
   2) 2004 Chevrolet Silverado
   3) 2004 Dodge Ram
   4) 2004 Ford F-250
   5) 2004 Toyota Tacoma

   Most Requested Sports Cars
   1) 2004 Mazda RX-8
   2) 2004 Nissan 350Z
   3) 2004 Acura TSX
   4) 2005 Scion tC
   5) 2004 Honda S2000

   Most Requested Minivans
   2004 Toyota Sienna
   2004 Honda Odyssey
   2004 Ford Freestar Wagon
   2005 Chrysler Town & Country
   2004 Nissan Quest