Kia.com emerged with the No. 1 ranking in J.D. Power and Associates' latest evaluation of the usefulness of automaker Web sites. But Toyota's site was the biggest climber from the previous study.
J.D. Power, of Westlake Village, Calif., surveyed 12,200 consumers about manufacturer sites based on usefulness of information and content, ease of navigation, appearance and speed.
The semiannual survey found that speed is even more important to online shoppers than previously thought, according to Power.
Power has conducted the study since 2001, but this was the first time the research firm used speed as a key measure of performance.
"Most improvements in speed will be transparent to the shopper because they'll just notice that the modem they have seems to be working better," says Dennis Galbraith, Power's senior director of research. "The challenge is to deliver better speed with the explosion in content that we're also seeing, such as video content to demonstrate features on the vehicle."
Kia improved from its No. 9 ranking in the previous study, which was released in February.
Kia has done a good job providing information about specific models on its home page quickly, rather than forcing visitors to access several pages to find options, pricing and other data, Galbraith says.
Kia finished with a score of 852 out of a possible 1,000 points. The industry average was 823. Hummer, which finished first in the previous study, dropped to No. 2.
"We try to achieve the highest level of simplicity and transparency," says Ian Beavis, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors America. "Some big companies make their sites too clever for their own good."
Kia.com is "becoming more and more of a (marketing) centerpiece of what we do," Beavis says.
But larger automakers also are demonstrating increasing sensitivity to Power's Web rankings.
Toyota had been concerned about its low ranking in the previous study; it finished fifth from the bottom among 37 brands. In the latest study, Toyota finished 10th with a score of 835.
Toyota determined that consumers were frustrated with the extensive use of red graphics and flash animation on its Web site. So a redesign was in order.
"We called in a little Visine to get the red out after that," joked Gregg Benkendorfer, Toyota's national manager for interactive marketing. "It made the site less of an advertisement. And that's what folks are responding to in driving us back up toward the top of the rankings."
Two of the Chrysler group's brands, Dodge and Jeep, finished above the industry average in the latest survey, while Chrysler brand finished well below. The Chrysler score was a head-scratcher for Bonita Stewart, Chrysler's director of interactive communications, because all three brands scored above average in site speed.
"It might reflect the fact that Dodge and Jeep by the nature of the brand are very active, and their appearance reflected that," Stewart says. "But that's something we're trying to bring forth in the Chrysler brand as well."