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It Was the Best of Cars, It Was the Worst of Cars

What the conflicted experience of Tesla owners tells us about automotive consumer desirability.

Automobile ownership is inherently fraught with conflict.

Say what you will about fuel economy, reliability and creative placement of charging ports and cupholders, the fact is, the best-selling vehicle in America is a 5,000-pound (2,268 kg) pickup truck that few owners regularly use for hauling or towing.

Industry Voices bug (002).jpgAmericans are infatuated with rugged SUVs and crossovers that rarely go off-pavement. And the most appealing car is one that is far from having the fewest number of reported problems during the first 90 days of ownership.

That last example refers to the bifurcated performance of Tesla as the poorest-scoring manufacturer evaluated in the recent 2020 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS) and yet the highest-scoring manufacturer evaluated in the just-out 2020 J.D. Power Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.

The phenomenon is an extreme version of what we often see in this era of rapid-fire expansion of vehicle lineups and technological innovation, but it does illustrate the challenge manufacturers face in finding the balance between the practical and emotional needs of buyers.

The Quest for Mass Individualization

Based on the recent trajectory of new vehicle development, that calculus won’t get easier anytime soon. There are 243 different vehicle models included in this year’s IQS and APEAL studies. Within that variety is every conceivable combination of powertrain, body style, paint color, wheel and tire combos and countless options packages and new technologies—all developed to help reach the largest number of buyers who increasingly crave the latest technologies and the hottest styling.

 

It’s a complicated proposition. And Tesla is a great example of how the phenomenon plays out in the real world. The manufacturer received a score of 250 problems per 100 vehicles, significantly worse than any other brand in IQS. Just a few weeks later, it received an APEAL study score of 896, significantly better than any other brand.

How can that be? In a word: emotion. While IQS measures the total number of problems experienced during the first 90 days of ownership, APEAL measures owners’ experiences and satisfaction with vehicle design, content, layout and performance during the same period. It’s noteworthy, too, that the IQS and APEAL insights are coming from the same 87,282 owners.

High-Maintenance Love Affairs

Drill down into the data and it becomes clear how owners can love a car despite –

or even because of – its quirks and problems.

Commonly cited problems with Teslas include door fit, paint defects and interior squeaks and rattles.

Meanwhile, some of the individual factors that drive APEAL are the acceleration, attractiveness of interior screens and experience of using the vehicle’s driver assistance systems. Put simply, Tesla’s tech-forward, experimental approach to automotive development is simultaneously an attraction to owners and a source of failure by design.

Tesla is not alone in this polarized performance. Land Rover, for example, perennially ranks among the top brands in APEAL, but among the bottom in IQS. Look at the brand’s performance in the studies and it’s evident that what consumers love about their Land Rover can often be directly linked with what they complain about in the same vehicle.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do both things well – to deliver excitement and spark attraction without requiring frequent trips to the repair shop. In fact, Dodge was the top-ranked mass market brand in this year’s APEAL and IQS studies. Lexus, Porsche and Genesis have managed a similar feat in the luxury segment in the past. The magic formula in these examples involves creating vehicles that deliver excitement in a reliable, quality-controlled package.

In Dodge’s case this year, it has a lot to do with cramming high horsepower engines into a small lineup of proven models.

The Growing Need for Nuanced Data

Given this complicated set of variables, how can manufacturers possibly hope to forecast demand and make strategic decisions about new features and optimal build configurations based on customer feedback? The answer is by looking at the full customer experience.

Just because auto ownership is enigmatic doesn’t mean it isn’t predictable. It’s the interplay between the pain points, the magic moments of delight and the real-world interactions with new technologies that paint the full picture and give automakers the data they need to refine their formulas.

As we catapult forward into a revolutionary new period of auto industry innovation – complete with autonomous technologies, new ownership models and continued lineup expansion – making sense of these nuances will become even more complicated and more critical than ever.

Doug Betts resized (2).jpgAgainst this highly competitive and largely uncharted backdrop, few manufacturer decisions will be made with simple, black-and-white certainty. Instead, manufacturers need data that helps them get comfortable in the gray area (and all of the other paint-to-sample variations in between) to understand the complex value equation behind our love affair with the automobile. (Doug Betts, left)

Doug Betts is president of the automotive division at J.D. Power.

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