J.D. Power: Fuel Economy Is #1 Car Criteria, But Bad Styling Can Keep Customers Away

January 17, 2013

J.D. Power and Associates' annual Avoider Study offers an interesting look at car shoppers' habits. The study not only asks customers why they were drawn to certain vehicles, but also -- as you might guess from the survey's name -- why they avoided others.

According to a press release, Power interviewed roughly "31,000 owners who registered a new vehicle in May 2012" to generate results for the 2013 Avoider Study. Here are some of the key findings.

STYLING IS A MAJOR FACTOR

Power found that the look of a car, inside and out, has a major effect on consumers' reaction to it. A hefty 33% of those surveyed said that they'd avoided a certain model because they didn't like its exterior styling. Another 19% turned their back on a potential purchase because they disliked the interior.

A vehicle's brand -- that is, the image it conveys -- also has a major impact on whether customers take a shine to it. For example, while some consumers like the eco-friendly image put forward by the Toyota Prius, others find it a turn-off. The same can be said of many SUVs (some see them as rugged, others as wasteful), compacts (small vs. fragile), and even midsize sedans (practical vs. dull). All told, 17% of those that Power surveyed avoided certain vehicles because of the image they conveyed.  

Power's research director, Jon Osborn, says that "The impact that design and brand image have on new-vehicle shoppers is substantial. Shoppers are concerned about what the vehicle says about them as people and how it can express their individual tastes, just as much as it is about being reliable or holding its value throughout the tenure of ownership."

RELIABILITY IS BECOMING LESS OF AN ISSUE

Today's cars last longer than their predecessors. Dependability and initial quality keep edging upward, and as a result, the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads now sits at about 11 years. Not surprisingly, reliability is becoming less of a concern for new-car shoppers. Chances are, customers will get tired of their vehicle long before it wears out.

Power's survey verifies this. In 2008, 21% of shoppers avoided certain vehicles because of their dodgy reputation for reliability. By 2011, the number had fallen two points to 19%. When responses were fielded in 2012, the number had slipped again to 17%. 

This has a downside for dealers, though: it means that shoppers are perusing more vehicles before they buy because the playing field is more level. The consumers that Power surveyed last year looked at an average of 3.3 vehicles before making their decision. That's up from 3.1 in 2011 and 2.9 in 2009. Only 21% of those surveyed bought a vehicle without cross-shopping, which is down from 29% of those surveyed in 2009.

FUEL ECONOMY IS KING (WHEN COMBINED WITH GOOD LOOKS AND LOW PRICE, ANYWAY)

Across all age groups, shoppers said fuel economy was their #1 concern when purchasing a new vehicle. However, that doesn't mean that consumers are flocking to hybrids and electric vehicles. In fact, 36% of those surveyed said that they avoided hybrids and electric cars because of their sticker price, and 25% did so because of such vehicles' exterior styling. 

That said, among those who did purchase a hybrid or electric car, 95% did so on the basis of the vehicle's fuel economy, and 62% were attracted to the car's minimal environmental impact.

Do these findings jibe with your own car-shopping tendencies? Sound off in the comments below.

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