Americans Renew Their Love for Cars — Online
Anne Fleming felt deeply confident as a negotiator—except whenever she entered an automotive dealership, where research shows that women pay more for cars than men.
So last October the former apparel executive in Pittsburgh launched a Web site called Women-Drivers.com, which offers negotiating tips, as well as reviews of female-friendly dealerships. In just nine months, the site has received reviews from several thousand women car shoppers. “We’ve gotten enough feedback to start ranking the female-friendliest dealerships,” says Ms. Fleming.
Despite a historic drop in U.S. auto sales, Women-Drivers.com is just one of scores of new automotive Web sites being launched that cater to car enthusiasts. For consumers, the Internet is helping to solve some of the most confounding aspects of buying a car, from comparing prices and reading reviews to getting tips on bargaining tactics. And the plethora of new sites for automotive buffs appears to demonstrate that Americans’ love affair with cars is alive and well.
Even as U.S. auto sales have fallen by about 30% this year from a year earlier, more than 100 new auto-related Web sites have been launched, says research group Hitwise. That brings the total number of such sites to nearly 5,000, more than for all but a few other industries. Since 2005, the ranks of automotive writers have grown to 2,700 from 1,600, says Autowriters.com, a site that tracks car writers for the auto industry.
Purchasing-related auto sites have generally experienced declining readership this year. But many sites that offer news and commentary and reviews have grown. Magazine stalwarts like Car and Driver, Road & Track, Automobile and Motor Trend now operate online editions. Fast gaining in the battle for car-news junkies is Autoblog, a five-year-old site whose motto is, “We obsessively cover the auto industry.”
Sexy Auto Spokescougars
TheTruthAboutCars.com is one of a slew of new sites for car buffs.
Almost no niche is too small. Online auto publications are appealing to readers based on geography ( DriveChicago.com ), type of car ( HybridSUV.com ), ethnic identity ( Latinos.onwheelsinc.com ), gender and even sexual orientation. At Gaywheels.com , readers can learn which auto makers do and don’t offer domestic-partner benefits to employees, as well as which vehicles are most popular among gays. “Gay men are four times more likely to own a Volkswagen than the average customer,” says Joe LaMuraglia, founder of the site.
Demand for automotive sites is increasing. A J.D. Power & Associates survey found that in 2008 more than 75% of car buyers conducted online research before shopping, up from 70% a year earlier. The popularity of cars online helps explain why General Motors Co. this month announced a joint venture to sell new cars through eBay Motors, the most visited online automotive site.
Some online auto entrepreneurs have struck it big. Kristin Varela was a single mom working for a Denver human-resources firm when she set about searching for the ideal vehicle for busing around children. “The only reviews I could find were basically by car buffs writing for gear heads,” she says.
So in 2004 she launched Motherproof.com , which reviewed cars from a maternal perspective. Among her questions: Were the seat belts simple enough for young children to fasten? Did it have enough cup holders? Could a young mom look hot in it? How did the reviewer’s children like the car?
Motherproof.com drew such strong traffic that advertisers flocked to it. In 2007, the site was purchased by Cars.com , one of the Web’s biggest automotive destinations, which hired Ms. Varela as its full-time editor. Every week, auto makers deliver new test cars to the driveways of young moms around the country who write reviews for Ms. Varela.
Sites devoted to electric-car coverage are particularly popular. Lyle Dennis, a neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was hardly looking for a new career two years ago when he launched GM-Volt.com , a site that follows the electric-car efforts of General Motors. An electric-car enthusiast, Dr. Dennis was merely planning to post the occasional press release or news development about GM’s battery-powered Volt, a car not due out until 2010.
Blogger by Night
But the site drew so much traffic that GM began inviting Dr. Dennis to Volt-related events and offering him exclusive interviews with its top executives. Advertisers began paying him for space on the site. And upon completing his daily duties, including treating victims of stroke, Dr. Dennis began making daily posts to the site. Last week, when GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson announced that the Volt would travel 230 miles per gallon of gasoline in city driving, Dr. Dennis flew in for the press conference. “This Web site has just added a whole new dimension to my life,” he says.
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