If you’re in the process of researching new cars right now, you’ve probably visited as many as a dozen auto manufacturers’ websites looking for details on the vehicles that interest you, and you’ve likely used the build-and-price tools on those sites to price out cars with the features you want.

You probably also have opinions about those websites that vary as widely as your impressions of the cars themselves, even if you can’t say exactly why you prefer one over another. That’s where marketing research firm JD Power and Associates’ annual Canadian manufacturer website evaluation study comes in: the study ranks the websites of major automakers to show which brands best have their finger on the pulse of how car shoppers want to research their purchases.

This year’s top site was Infiniti.ca, which outscored 28 other mainstream manufacturer websites in a survey that asked more than 3,300 Canadian car shoppers to rate their recent experiences researching new vehicles online. According to JD Ney, JD Power’s manager of automotive research and consulting, a successful website is all about content and how it’s presented.

“It wasn’t really that long ago that the car shopping process involved a customer going to different dealerships to speak to salespeople and pick up glossy brochures on each model they were interested in,” said Ney. “That was the only way that someone could do their primary research on what car they wanted, and that’s fundamentally different today. Now, that glossy brochure is, ideally, replaced with a really great website.”

JD Power has been conducting this survey for nearly 15 years, and in that time Ney said automaker websites have come a long way. “The gap between best and worst is really quite small relative to where it used to be; every brand’s website lives between ‘not bad’ and ‘pretty good.'” To wit: Infiniti.ca earned a score of 779 out of a possible 1,000, while last-place Dodge.ca was good enough for 721.

That begs the question of why – if mainstream automakers’ websites are indeed that good – such a survey is even necessary. After learning this year’s results and then browsing Infiniti.ca, our impression was that the site’s design could have been based on the criteria JD Power uses to create the ranking. As it turns out, that’s no accident, according to Infiniti Canada’s managing director, Stephen Lester.

“(Our latest site) was developed in December 2013, and a lot of research did go into looking at JD Power’s criteria in terms of setting up what consumer expectations were, and how we could deliver on that,” said Lester. “We looked at (site) elements that were important to us, and cross-referenced those with what JD Power says are the key drivers for overall consumer satisfaction.”

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Certainly, those drivers are different now than they were when auto manufacturers first established a presence on the web, but while JD Ney says the Internet has altered consumer behaviour, what hasn’t changed is the auto manufacturer’s end goal, which is to sell vehicles.

“Among the Gen Y/millennial set, the majority of them said they would be willing to do everything up to and including providing a down payment online, before getting to the dealership,” said Ney. “That’s a very different way to think about the automotive retail space: people are still kicking tires (‘clicking’ sounds more appropriate, here), but now they’re doing it from their couch.”

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