Online car shopping service Autobytel.com Inc. will launch a Japanese Web site next week linking 200 dealers affiliated with 10 auto makers to challenge a venture backed by Microsoft Corp. for Internet-based sales in the world's second-biggest car market.
The Irvine-based company, which makes money by charging its network of 2,700 dealers for online referrals, formed the venture in June with six Japanese partners including systems integrator Intec Inc., trading company Itochu Corp. and Internet financier Trans Cosmos Inc.
Their joint venture, Autobytel.com Japan, will go online Monday and compete with a Japanese version of Microsoft's CarPoint Web site that will start business 10 days later with the backing of Japan's biggest Internet investment company, Softbank Corp.
As many as 5% of U.S. car buyers will use an Internet car-shopping service next year, according to a study released by the market research company J.D. Power & Associates in August. Still, analysts say the road to consumer acceptance may be longer in Japan, where the majority of new car sales begin with a home visit by a dealer representative and where household penetration of personal computers is only half the level in the U.S.
"In Japan they've just got used to salesmen coming around visiting them," said Jeremy Tonkin, an auto analyst at Towa Securities Research Institute Co. "Online selling will only start increasing for new cars when consumers get more computers in their homes and start learning how to use the Internet."
Autobytel.com Japan has signed agreements to work with more than 200 new car dealers affiliated with five Japanese and five foreign auto makers. That will give users a choice of four more brands than will be initially offered by CarPoint K.K., although the latter Web site will be linked to four times as many sales points as its rival.
"We intend to expand our network to 1,000 dealers in the next year," said Autobytel.com President Keisei Sasaki.
He declined to comment on forecasts for dealer referrals or rates the venture plans to charge. Its U.S. parent said in May that its Web site is generating more than $24 million in daily sales of cars and trucks, though the company doesn't expect to post its first profit until 2001.
Autobytel.com Japan will be linked to the nationwide sales networks of Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Corp., Subaru maker Fuji Heavy Industries Co., Mazda Motor Corp. and Isuzu Motors Ltd., as well as import dealers affiliated with Germany's Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Porsche AG, Ford Motor Co., Ford's Jaguar unit and Sweden's Volvo AB.
CarPoint K.K. doesn't have deals with Honda, Isuzu, Porsche or Volvo, though it said earlier this month it is still in negotiations with all major auto makers. Unlike its competitor, it does have an agreement with the Japanese importer of Citroen cars, made by France's PSA Peugeot Citroen.
Both Autobytel.com Japan and CarPoint K.K. plan to expand their services into the used-car market, which is growing faster than new car sales in Japan as the country's recession has squeezed budgets and government-imposed inspection requirements for used cars have been loosened.