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Car shoppers willing to compromise on price, amenities,
and size—but not safety

The tough economy and high gas prices are driving consumers to prioritize fuel economy with their next car purchase according to a new survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. And to save at the pump, they are willing to compromise on purchase price, amenities, and size but not safety.

Taking the pulse of American motorists on car buying and fuel economy issues, the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted 1,764 random, nationwide telephone interviews of adult car owners from April 28-May 2, 2011.

The economy has caused a significant drop in annual car sales over recent years, and the age of the average car driven by respondents has increased to eight years. This trend was consistent across most demographics, though household income was a key factor. In households earning $50,000 or more a year, the average age of their cars was six years, whereas lower-income households drove 10-year-old vehicles on average. A significant 23 percent of surveyed motorists are driving cars from the 1990s, many of which must be at the tail end of their reliable service life and certainly well behind current safety standards.

What will they buy?
For their next car, nearly twice as many consumers expect to choose a model with much better or somewhat better fuel economy (62 percent) relative to those who are targeting about the same fuel economy (32 percent). Just 5 percent say their next car will have worse fuel economy, likely driven by changing needs, such as a growing family (minivan) or launching a small business (pickup truck).

Survey respondents expect their next car to deliver an average of 29 mpg. Older drivers, women, and those from lower-income households expect even greater fuel economy. These demographic groups favor small cars and sedans – car types that can deliver that desired mileage. More than 10 percent said they expect 40 mpg or better in their next car.

To get significant fuel-economy gains, more than half of respondents are willing to pay extra for a more efficient vehicle, playing right into the strategy of several automakers who offer special-edition models for a premium. Often the gains for such models are slight, just 1-2 mpg, and the return on that investment – even when just a few hundred dollars – may be much longer than consumers anticipate.

What would you do to save on fuel?

 

New car

Used car

 

Pay more for fuel-efficient car

58%

49%

 

Compromise amenities or comfort

44

54

 

Compromise size or capacity

47

48

 

Compromise performance

27

35

 

Compromise safety

11

14

 

Despite consumers craving relief from operating costs, and owning older cars, just 17 percent plan to purchase a car in the coming year. Younger consumers (aged 18-34 years) are three times as likely to buy a car this year as older consumers (aged 55 and over).

Among those who plan to purchase, about four in 10 will buy a new car, led by older, more affluent consumers. Most car shoppers (55 percent) will likely buy used, thereby avoiding the initial depreciation hit experienced with new cars and giving them more vehicle for the money.

Car type planned to purchase in next year

 

New car

Used car

 

Sedan

21%

18%

 

Small car

18

19

 

Midsized SUV

16

11

 

Small SUV

12

10

 

Pickup truck

8

13

 

Minivan

7

9

 

Sporty car

6

5

 

Large SUV

5

5

 

Convertible

2

2

 

Wagon

1

1

 

Compared against their current cars, shoppers are moving away from both new and used sedans, despite that many sedans provide a good balance of fuel economy and safety. The number of respondents who expect to buy a new or used sedan is 5 and 8 percentage points lower, respectively, than the number who currently own a sedan. Pickup truck interest is also down, but that is less surprising given economic conditions.

The car-type shift sees shoppers gravitating toward new small and midsized SUVs – traditionally versatile vehicles, though often not the thriftiest choices. There is only a 1 percentage point shift from large SUV ownership (6 percent) to purchase intent (5 percent), giving this expensive, gas-guzzling category surprising market resiliency. The best balance of dynamics, flexibility, and ownership costs is often a wagon, yet wagons rate at the absolute bottom for purchase intent.

Older consumers intend to get a sedan or small car than others. Men prefer pickup trucks by a wide margin, while women lead small SUV interest.
While America's passenger-car fleet continues to age, less than a fifth of car owners will be looking to replace their ride in the coming year. When it does come time to buy, fuel economy will be a primary factor, driven by operating costs. To reach their fuel-economy goals, most shoppers will need to compromise on size and even consider paying more for a diesel or hybrid – something many consumers claim they are willing to do.

Consumer Reports will dig deeper into the survey's findings on attitudes toward car buying in upcoming blog's at www.ConsumerReports.org.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted telephone surveys of 2,033 random adults comprising 1,018 men and 1,015 women 18 years of age and older. Respondents were screened for ownership by the household of one or more vehicles. The analysis is based on the 1,764 adults who said that their household owns a vehicle. Interviewing took place over April 28-May 2, 2011. The sampling error is +/- 2.4 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.

To subscribe to Consumer Reports, call 1-800-234-1645 or visit www.ConsumerReports.org.

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