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Here's a number that tells you everything about how new vehicles are sold in 2012, versus perhaps a decade ago: 63.

Yes, 63 per cent of shoppers walking into a dealership today say they know the exact vehicle they want, from pricing to colour to trim level to options, researcher J.D. Power and Associates reports. And it's accepted wisdom that four of five buyers take their first step to a new ride by surfing the Internet. Buyers today do their homework online long before they begin the showroom stroll. They know what they want and they're ready to deal at what you might call the click of a mouse.

"Sixty per cent of buyers would like to wrap up the price negotiation in 15 minutes or less," reports a new J.D. Power online survey. In fact, a separate Power study, the 2011 Consumer Retail Experience Study, found that overall customer satisfaction "dips significantly after the 15-minute threshold."

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Not surprisingly, websites are central to making customers happy – happy enough to walk into a dealership to buy a new ride. J.D. Power's latest 2012 Canadian Manufacturer Website Evaluation Study found consumers are far more likely to head to the dealer for a test drive if they've had "a highly satisfying experience on a manufacturer's website."

Power found that three-quarters of really happy online researchers/shoppers are more likely to head to the dealer. Those not happy – just 14 per cent of them go car shopping in person. Web impressions matter and they matter greatly.

"The significant gap in the intent to test-drive is a reminder that first impressions matter and weigh heavily on the shopper's mind when considering a new vehicle," says J.D. Ney, automotive account analyst at J.D. Power and Associates in Canada.

As we all know, the Web is close to a living entity, constantly evolving, growing, shifting, adapting. The modern online shopper expects manufacturer websites to adopt new technologies and features to make shopping easier and faster. Online shoppers, the study found, want speed, a clean and understandable appearance, easy navigation and lots of content. Information shoppers use websites to cobble together the details of their vehicle purchase.

"The key is not to refresh or redesign the entire website constantly, but to understand specifically where problems with content and navigation are in order to allow shoppers to find exactly what they need," says Ney.

Here's a warning for manufacturers: if your website is sub-par, consumers will take note and move on to a better experience from a rival manufacturer. Luxury brands overall, says J. D. Power's Ney, "need to put more effort toward making their website a premium experience." Mainstream brands are, in fact, doing a better job with their websites. Toyota ranks first – and did last year, also.

Manufacturer websites, of course, have become central to the bigger marketing picture of the auto industry. Think of a website as the funnel into which most, if not all, other marketing activities are poured – traditional advertising, social media, online video, search marketing and the rest.

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Interestingly, so-called new media, all of which is ultimately designed to drive Web traffic, seems destined to surpass advertising buys in traditional media such as television, radio, magazines and newspapers. For instance, look at these numbers from Kantar Media, recently reported by Advertising Age: General Motors has gone from $2.15-billion (U.S.) in traditional media in 2010 to $1.77-billion last year, while GM's non-traditional spending on marketing jumped 115 per cent to $1.28-billion.

The money car companies spend on their Internet efforts – especially social media marketing – is intended to mimic an "amped-up version" of what trade journal Automotive News has termed the oldest and most powerful form of marketing of all: word of mouth.

"Social media marketers capitalize on the credibility of individuals. The goal is to stimulate people to pass along a product message. Marketers feel that their product pitches are more believable coming from a friend, even a Facebook friend you never see in person, than in a TV spot," notes the industry publication.

Sharing, sharing, sharing. Sam Hoyt, the feisty marketing manager for the 2013 Ford Fusion, says Ford's strategy for launching the all-new Fusion is focused on getting consumers to share views and insights and information about the new mid-size sedan – in person and online.

"Cars have always been reliant on social media before there was social media," Brad Adgate, Horizon Media research director, says in an Automotive News interview. "Cars, movies and restaurants were always three things that people talked about – word of mouth."

Social media and other forms of Web-based marketing are wasted, however, if they drive traffic to an unsatisfying manufacturer's website – the place where buyers essentially seal the deal by researching and pricing out the vehicle. What online shoppers are not looking for, say experts, is a site loaded with hyperbole and a hard sell, a site touting "hot deals" and "buy-right-now" pitches. Car shoppers want facts, not hype, and they want to get those facts quickly and in an uncomplicated manner.

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What's it all mean? The Web-savvy car buyer is in the driver's seat.

*****

Here's a look at J.D. Power's website rankings based on a 1,000-point scale.

Toyota, 858

Lincoln, 845

Buick, 843

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Chevrolet, 841

Honda, 839

Kia, 837

Subaru, 837

Volvo, 834

Lexus, 834

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Mercedes-Benz, 833

Volkswagen, 833

Mazda, 827

Scion, 826

Hyundai, 822

Mass Market Average, 822

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Industry Average, 821

Mitsubishi, 820

Ford, 819

Jeep, 819

Fiat, 818

Luxury Average, 818

Dodge, 817

Nissan, 817

Ram, 817

GMC, 812

Acura, 811

Infiniti, 808

Audi, 806

Cadillac, 803

Suzuki, 800

Chrysler, 798

BMW, 787

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