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J.D. Power Report / A closer look at the Auto Market

To Californians, Comfort Comes First, Survey of New Owners Shows

June 25, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California motorists have a message for auto makers: They value comfort over handling, driving pleasure above performance, and they don't believe the industry is doing enough to satisfy their needs.

It's a message that comes through loud and clear in Californians' responses to the 1998 Initial Quality Survey conducted by the automotive quality gurus at J.D. Power & Associates.

California's motorists are more concerned with the heater than with how well the tires grip the asphalt in hard turns on our mountain roads. A ding is a bigger irritant than a sluggish transmission.

Hard to believe?

It's all there, in numbers the Agoura Hills-based Power organization has crunched exclusively for Highway 1. The California data were culled from the recently released IQS, an annual report that is widely regarded as an authoritative measure of new-vehicle quality.

This year, the survey showed that nine of the 10 most common problems cited by new-car buyers in California were related to the comfort or appearance of their vehicles.

"Californians are pickier than other car owners" about comfort issues, said Chance Parker, Power's product research director. "We spend a lot more time in our cars than people in other states. At times we seem to live in them. So it makes sense that we'd be concerned about creature comforts."

The message in these findings isn't that car makers can lighten up on performance and handling improvements, Parker said, but that they'd better pay even closer attention to the little details--how tight the doors fit, how comfortable the seats sit.

"This should confirm the direction we see them taking," he said. "They're building more creature comforts than ever before into all their cars, and they need to keep it up."

Our penchant for posh shows up in the aftermarket too. Nationally, car buyers who add to the equipment that manufacturers provide typically spend $3,500 in the first year of ownership on comfort- and appearance-oriented add-ons such as CD players, upgraded stereos, sheepskin seat covers and fancy tires and wheels, said Jim Spoonhower, resource director for the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. But in Southern California, he said, the total is almost 23% higher--$4,300.

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Just how comfort-conscious are we?

Well, it was only in the California responses to the Power survey that poor radio reception ranked among the top 10 problems. It wasn't a factor in the national norm.

Spoonhower suggests that the amount of time Southern Californians spend in their cars is the big factor here, magnifying the smallest flaws. "It probably isn't even the radios that are the problem. Factory sound systems are replaced quite frequently, but it is usually in order to get better speakers, more powerful amplifiers and equipment like CD players."

Californians, Parker said, also complained more than residents of other states about the performance of their new cars' heaters and air conditioners. We out-griped the rest of the country about scratched or chipped paint and about manual gearshifts that were just too hard, darn it, to operate.

We do like power--we groused more than the rest of the country that engines aren't powerful enough. But the reason is iffy.

Parker suggests that this is because we have a lot of hills and mountains to climb, whereas in the Midwest it is flat as the Catalina Channel on a hot July day and nobody needs an extra boost to get up and over a hill.

The survey also supports other studies that have debunked the common belief that Californians drive more than anyone else. We might spend more hours in our cars, thanks to jammed freeways, but the Power study found that in the first 90 days of ownership, median mileage in California is 3,000 miles--versus 3,500 nationwide.

Still, we do enjoy driving.

The Power survey found that 32% of California respondents like to drive on "challenging" roads; nationwide, the response was 27%.

The Golden State is also full of people who research before they buy. A healthy 58% of California respondents read reviews, consumer research publications and other material about their target cars before they buy, compared with 52% nationally. And underscoring California's status as the high-tech capital, 22% of respondents here use the Internet to go car shopping, versus 15% in the rest of the country.

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Not surprising to anyone who lives here, but a warning to U.S. car makers: Only 42% of the survey's California participants said they would prefer an American car, compared with a 61% preference for domestic brands nationally.

Californians were in step with the rest of the country when asked if they still think Asian cars are better than American: Almost 80% said they do. Yet only in California, the Power data indicate, is the belief that Toyotas and Hondas are better than Fords and Chevys so frequently translated into action when it comes time to buy.

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