What Drives Owner Loyalty?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 03, 2014

Owner loyalty is a tricky thing, not wholly based—as you might expect—on the car’s reliability. You might think that we’d rate our cars by how they get us from point A to point B, but judging from the latest owner satisfaction survey from Consumer Reports, that’s patently not the case. We buy cars with the heart, not the head. Frankly, it’s like love—some of us remain devoted to people who are bad for us. And the same goes for certain cars; like an unreliable partner, they’re going to leave us trudging home alone, through the snow, muttering curses under our breath. (See: Peugeot, Fiat.)

Owners love the Tesla Model S, despite occasional glitches. (Tesla photo)I predicted, accurately it turned out, that the Tesla Model S would have the highest owner satisfaction in the survey. It’s a whopping 98 percent, with its nearest competitor the Corvette Stingray (95 percent). The Model S has had its share of issues—the door handles don’t always  work, for example, and Consumer Reports (which had a lot of niggling issues with its test car) rated the 2012 and 2013 models “average” on reliability—but owners are the most loyal I’ve ever met.

The same is true of the 2013 Corvette, which in the J.D. Power Initial Quality study got a three out of five on reliability. But ‘Vette loyalists would own no other car. According to Eric Evarts, senior associate autos editor at CU, the niche fanaticism for Teslas and Corvettes has historical precedent. “We saw the same thing with Prius owners, when the Prius was new, and among VW Beetle owners in the 1960s,” he said. “People tend to like cars that have a specific purpose, and do it really well without compromises.”

The Corvette Stingray inspires loyalty, but is it more for those four chromed exhaust tips than Civic-like reliability? (Chevrolet photo)Indeed. The funny thing is that plain jane cars, as reliable as the day is long, don’t inspire much loyalty. The Toyota Corolla, for instance, runs like a Swiss watch but gets only a 71 rating in the survey, and ditto for the Honda Civic coupe (70). The Hyundai Elantra gets a mere 60. “It’s harder to find satisfaction owning a car like the Corolla, which is like a hugely boring grey suit,” Evarts said.

The Dodge Challenger from Chrysler, the most reliability challenged U.S. automaker, merits an 86 in the survey. Because it’s a better car than the Civic or Corolla? Nah. “It’s an awesome muscle car,” said Evarts. “And it’s easier to live with than its competitors, the Camaro and Mustang.”

The Dodge Challenger: Maybe more family friendly than the Camaro or Mustang. (Chrysler photo)The big rating for the Tesla Model S is reflected across the green car spectrum. Three other hybrid or electric cars—the Chevy Volt, the Toyota Prius C and the Honda Accord Hybrid—also led their respective classes. Seven green cars made the top of the charts with ratings of  80 or above. It just goes to show that people will love a car that makes them feel good about doing their part for the planet.

Here's a look at the Consumer Reports Satisfaction Ratings on video:


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