I've looked at Japanese automotive brands online, now it's time to take on Germany.

I thought I'd take a spin through the UK websites of the German big three automotive companies. What do BMW, Audi and Mercedes' websites handle like for first timers?

Well, they might be known as the big three, but much like the Japanese roundup, there's a clear loser.

For some detail on automotive and social media, check out these posts.

Homepage first glance

The first thing to note is the ‘feel’ of the three homepages. What’s obvious is that BMW is the only brand to feature people.

OK, there is a guy on the Mercedes homepage carousel, but he’s wearing a visored helmet and smashing an axe into a window to demonstrate its durability (update: I realise he's demonstrating rescue assist).

BMW, I’ll admit, only features people (lots of them) on one of its carousel images. However, the other images are light and airy, they look like fun TV advertisements, rather than the gloomy Ballardian auto-porn of Mercedes and Audi.

Here are a few screenshots for you to make up your own mind.

Actual people on the BMW homepage

bmw homepage

Also some lively looking images with scenery

bmw homepage

Mercedes uses smaller and gloomier car stock

mercedes homepage

Audi, too

audi homepage

Features and navigation

BMW

BMW wins here again, with Audi fairing okay and Mercedes not covering itself in glory.

BMW’s header menu is most well-defined, with the white text contrasting well with the dark grey menu. On rollover, the listed model categories drop down quickly and the pictures and messaging are clear.

At the bottom of BMW’s homepage there are pinned and noticeable links to dealerships, brochures and test drives. Where the homepage stands out is the four boxes used to highlight topical areas of interest.

This is a feature that simply doesn’t exist on the Mercedes and Audi websites, which both feel as if they are rarely updated.

Click to enlarge

bmw website

Mercedes

The Mercedes homepage doesn’t have much going for it. Although some of the text contrasts well, it’s far too small and there isn’t anything aesthetically enjoyable outside of the carousel. The choice of a black background is dubious.

The car model menu uses rollover dropdowns again, but it’s not immediately obvious this area is actually a menu. The dropdowns aren’t done particularly cleanly, as it took me a while to find out what I could click on (not the car and confusingly not the randomly placed ‘download from the App Store' call to action).

I quite like the five thumbnails that advertise the main objectives of the website – dealerships, test drives, brochures, car configuration and offers. These should perhaps be made bigger at the expense of the text below, whilst maintaining accessibility through metatags.

The top menu categories also drop down on rollover as shown below. This is fairly clear, but again the lack of imagery and small text means I have to think pretty hard instead of following my nose.

Click to enlarge

mercedes website

mercedes website

Audi

Audi isn’t far off the BMW standard. It’s slightly more sedate, but everything is done well, as you’d expect.

Images are used in the menus to make navigation easier. The car model menu displays each car with a small amount of clear introductory text and then two simple calls to action, to build or to explore. The fact that the price on the A6 says ‘TBC’ in my screenshot isn’t ideal.

audi website

audi website

One small note of caution here on functionality - my pop-up blocker stopped me from the using the configurator in the bottom left, as you can see below.

This could be a problem for a non-techy user.

audi configurator

Product pages

BMW

BMW knocks it out of the park here. So often on automotive websites the selection of a car model takes you to a less pretty, less functional area of the site.

With BMW, the homepage seems to reload (the menus remain), showing great photography of the model in question and features picked out in illustrated boxes with convincing copywriting. There’s a long list of features to investigate in greater detail, too.

As on the homepage, calls to action are still pinned to the bottom of the page, so I can book a test drive quickly if I so desire.

Click to visit

bmw website

Audi

Audi is interesting because although the page appears a little plainer than BMW’s at first glance, it contains features that are rare to find on automotive websites.

It’s also, unlike BMW, a scrollable page, with lots below the fold.

Click to visit

audi product page

audi product page

The interior and exterior views of each car can be interacted with via the image panel in the middle. I can go full screen in the interior.

Yes, one side of a car looks like the other side, and the interior seems to be seats and a wheel and a dashboard. But this feature works well on desktop and will likely further affirm the ideas of a detail-happy customer or the Top Gear fan that likes gadgets in cars and also on car websites.

audi website

audi interactive

I can also add models that take my fancy to my shortlist, which can be popped up from the bottom of the product page.

This is perhaps the first step to encouraging a user to signing up for an account and is a handy way for ordered Audi drivers to keep a track of their browsing.

My shortlist

audi shortlist feature

The video, as part of the product image slideshow, is probably the most convincing part of the page. It’s easy to access and convincingly talks through product features with plenty of shots of the model in question.

This is something that BMW doesn’t do on the product page. Yes, BMW has a link to a comprehensive multimedia gallery featuring five videos but I feel Audi’s approach pays off, especially when viewing on a tablet, where one is more inclined to scroll and explore than click.

The fold-out specifications work neatly and again are a boon for tablet. On the whole, as far as product pages go, Audi lives up to its billing of quietly impressive functionality.

Mercedes product page

I find the Mercedes product pages quite painful. They have that feel of imagery with text links circa. 2006.

Again, the text is too small. The ‘download on the App Store’ button can’t be clicked. There’s a video that’s easy enough to find and is quite fun but doesn’t actually talk about any features. It’s a cop out, so that the video can be used across regions.

The rest of the links in this product page are to download an e-brochure.

Click to visit

mercedes product page

Conclusion

BMW jumped out at me as the clear winner here, but Audi grew on me as I explored the site more. One thing’s for sure, the Mercedes would have to tempt me in on my pre-established knowledge and impression of the brand and product, because the website doesn’t convince.

Luckily I don’t have enough money to buy any of them.

Ben Davis

Published 10 September, 2014 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (7)

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Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

Update. The Audi priced as 'TBC' is indeed awaiting its announced price and this isn't an error with the site.
http://www.audi.co.uk/new-cars/a6/a6-avant.html

over 3 years ago

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Iain Noakes, Chief Customer Journey Officer at The Economist Newspaper Ltd

Good stuff. Which country / brands are next? VW - Ford - Citroen - Hyundai - Kia - Skoda... choices choices

over 3 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Iain

I've got the American big three to do, but haven't investigated what versions I'll see from my home in the UK.

It's certainly an intriguing sector. Room for improvement in many cases.

over 3 years ago

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Morgan Jones, Digital Manager at Myself

Thanks for doing this. At our agency we constantly have to mock up dealership websites based on the the brand websites (for approval by the manufacturer). This extends to copying the good as well as the bad and it is particularly infuriating having to replicate terrible usability because that's what the client wants. So I will be using articles like this to push for change on how we approach future projects.

over 3 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Morgan

An intriguing insight!

over 3 years ago

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Rob H

Nice analysis. I spent a lot of time on te BMW website recently as I was getting one of those there i3s. It's good BUT try using a lot of it on a phone.

over 3 years ago

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mark

Good balanced and objective review. Love you to compare these to the three UK auto brands; Jaguar, Landrover and Aston Martin, please.

over 3 years ago

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