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What Americans Want in a New Car: Everything

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What do car buyers want? It’s a good question, but not all that easily answered. Surveys often reveal contradictory information—most people want it all: great performance, luxury, cutting-edge design, top-notch fuel economy and a bottom line that won’t break the bank.

Tesla 's chief designer Franz von Holzhausen explaining the virtues of the  2014 Model X  at the Detroit Auto Show. (Jim Motavalli photo)Logic would probably lead most families to a Toyota Corolla or a minivan, but buying a car isn’t ruled by logic—it’s an emotional decision, which explains the legions of trail-ready SUVs that never leave the highway (only 10 percent of them, on average, actually do). In 30 years of talking to Americans about cars, the only positive comments I’ve ever gotten about minivans is from the people who own them. Without the fate-worse-than-death specter of being labeled a “soccer mom,” most people would enter their vehicle through a sliding door.   

But let’s look at some hard data from the 2013 J.D. Power Avoider Study, which surveys 31,000 new car buyers who made their purchases last May. The average new vehicle shopper considers an average of 3.3 cars or trucks, up from 2.9 in 2010. My guess is that the Internet is helpful here (check out our partners over at Cars.com), because it makes cross-shopping and comparing features very easy. Only 21 percent of people buy their car without comparing it to other models, which is down from 29 percent who did that three years ago.

This represents a sea change from the 50s and 60s, when Americans tended to be loyal to one of the Big Three domestic brands. Insert your vintage Ford or Chevy joke here. I offer one of each: “How do you double the value of a Chevy? Put gas in it.” And: “How is a golf ball different from a Ford? You can drive a golf ball 200 yards.”

The unlamented Yugo recalls a time when new cars could be truly lousy. People see the overall quality of new cars as better than ever, so only 17 percent will avoid a specific model because of its reputation for lousy quality (down from 21 percent in ’09). You can’t buy a Yugo today so car is truly horrible, and the average number of problems per 100 vehicles after three years has dropped from 170 in 2009 to 132 today.

Get this: the primary reason people avoid buying a particular car (33 percent) is that they don’t like the styling. Another group (19 percent) won’t buy a car because of its interior look, and one in five (17 percent) says no because of the image. I submit that image is actually more important than that, and people understate their actual views in surveys. Nobody likes to be thought of as ruled by image—but we are.

Eric Evarts, associate auto editor at Consumer Reports, rues this heart-over-head behavior on the part of car buyers. The magazine lays out the facts about what living with a particular car would actually be like, with no influence from advertising. People do consider those factors--up to a point. But when it comes to actually making a decision, it's often as much an impulse purchase as the candy bar or copy of People at the checkout counter.  "Yep," he told me, "those buyers are the ones who write us off--and probably end up unhappy with their purchase after 18 months. The kind of people who buy Dodge Nitros."  Personally, I can't imagine an emotional decision to buy a Dodge Nitro, but that's just me.

It’s gratifying to learn that fuel economy—hardly a factor until 2008 or so—is still “the most influential purchase reason,” though only 15 percent put it first. Younger car owners (who are more likely to have financial constraints) cite it more often than older ones do, but it still leads across the generations.

The Nissan Leaf just benefited from a $6,000 entry-level price cut. The public wants affordable EVs. (Jim Motavalli photo)The survey also has some news about hybrid and electric vehicles. High cost is the deciding factor for 36 percent of the people who avoid buying them, but exterior styling isn’t far behind at 25 percent. That might bode well for Nissan’s decision to cut the entry price for the 2013 Nissan Leaf by a whopping $6,000. The cheaper price might outweigh the minor de-contenting that was part of the deal.

Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at Power, tells me, “Given the recession of 2008 and the rise in gas prices that ensued, consumers have made considerable efforts to make savings wherever possible, including their fuel costs. EVs seem a viable option to minimize that spending, and buyers are beginning to trust that the technology is viable. However, the cost of an EV combined with the availability of much improved fuel economy from traditional internal-combustion engines is making it hard for some people to justify the extra expense.”

Today's consumer mindset is basically good news for companies like Tesla Motors, whose Model S electric sedan offers killer styling and performance in a fairly practical package. And its image is stellar, thanks to a salivating auto press (it was car of the year in both Motor Trend and Automobile). The price (starting at $44,900 after the federal tax credit) is an issue, though, and it’s undoubtedly the single biggest obstacle to the carmaker ramping up to its goal of 20,000 cars a year. For that reason, the new Model X crossover (built on the Model S platform) will probably be a home run if the company can keep the price down. Some reports indicate it could be expensive, though.

Nissan is also reconsidering its heavy focus on environmentally oriented appeals, and that’s backed in the survey results, too. A huge 95 percent of the consumers who considered a hybrid or an electric said that fuel economy was paramount, but only 62 percent cited the environment.

The results suggest that automakers need to finely calibrate their pricing strategy for green cars—not so expensive that potential buyers are priced out of the market, but not so cheap that they lose tons of money. “Hybrid and electric vehicle owners want to get the most out of a gallon of gas and minimize the environmental impact, even if that means spending more money to purchase the vehicle,” said Jon Osborn, Power’s research director.

Americans do want it all, but they’ll settle for something affordable with good fuel economy, styling and image, in that order. Automakers: No bland meat-and-potatoes sedans—the public wants pizzazz. And electrics with high voltage.
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