SUVs Top Online Shoppers' Interest, Small Cars Fade

Research and statistics firm Nielsen has released more data about U.S. shopping and buying habits, and as always, the company's findings are pretty interesting. In fact, after surveying 250,000 Americans online, Nielsen has identified a few causes for optimism in the auto industry, despite today's flailing economy.

Most importantly: Nielsen finds that people are shopping. Yes, vehicle sales are down, year-over-year--way down. Like, around 37% down. However, the number of people shopping for new cars online has dropped only 9%. In other words: although folks may not be able to afford a new auto just yet, they're still looking. That could translate to robust vehicle sales once the economy begins to improve.

Also: certain brands have generated strong interest among consumers, which should give automakers new insight into what shoppers want. Kia scored big with its Sedona and Sorento models, and the new Soul has hit a nerve with younger buyers; all that has resulted in Kia jumping from the 24th most researched brand to the 13th. The CC and the Forester moved Volkswagen and Subaru, respectively, up the charts. And patriots, don't fret: American brands did well, too, with Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, and Dodge all making the top six.

On an interesting note: more people are shopping for SUVs than anything else. Although there are a number of fuel-efficient conventional and hybrid SUVs on the market, this likely means that Americans haven't lost their appetite for size or gas, which could set the stage for curious sales stats as federal regulations work to change the face of the SUV segment.

The spike in SUV interest is paralleled by a steep drop in demand for basic economy vehicles--a segment that saw a surge during last summer's gas price spike and has never recovered. However, upper middle cars like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima are running nearly neck-and-neck with SUVs, and many of those have hybrid variants, so perhaps all isn't lost for green car enthusiasts.

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