Wanted: High Tech at Low Cost

When it comes to automotive innovations, today's consumers want more. They're just not always willing to pay extra for it. Dealers say technology enhancements are important, but in many cases consumers want it quick, easy and preferably as standard features. At the high end of the market, tech offerings often are bundled into the vehicle cost in order to keep the option list from looking too long.

When it comes to automotive innovations, today's consumers want more. They're just not always willing to pay extra for it.

Dealers say technology enhancements are important, but in many cases consumers want it quick, easy and preferably as standard features.

At the high end of the market, tech offerings often are bundled into the vehicle cost in order to keep the option list from looking too long.

Then again, some luxury-car buyers, because of their affluence and interest in the latest gadgetry, are willing to pay extra for it.

Some auto analysts point to an emerging trend. Many consumers are opting for smaller engines in the interest of fuel economy. Those engines typically cost less. Buyers are putting the savings into better interior features and technology innovations.

“We're seeing consumers opting for smaller engines and putting the savings, not in their pocket, but into vehicle content to make vehicles more appealing,” says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, J.D. Power and Associates' executive director-vehicle consulting research.

Advanced entertainment systems, telematics such as Ford's Sync voice-activated connectivity system and driver aids such as lane departure-lane change warning signals are becoming popular.

Although car buyers want what often amounts to complicated automotive technology, they want simplicity of use. That can be a challenge to auto makers and suppliers.

Auto makers are preoccupied with making operating features simpler, especially with on-screen navigation menus, video displays and controls, says Mike Marshall, director-automotive emerging technologies at JDP and Associates.

“The main goal today is ease of use,” he says. “Auto makers are all focused on it. They're working to create a more simple process for both soft and hard technology issues in vehicles.”

Still, some screen functions and integrated audio-information systems are like operating a mini-computer while driving, raising both driver frustration and distraction levels.

Some vehicle technology is easy to sell, some isn't, especially when consumers become frugal in a down economy, dealers say.

“Features, that customers believe are a perceived value, matter to them,” says dealer Wes Lutz of Extreme Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep in Jackson, MI. “Dual DVD players in minivans have been very popular, and the new satellite TV is something the consumer is asking for in minivans as well.”

But he adds: “We now offer a wireless LAN in our cars and trucks, and it hasn't been selling well, so I'm guessing most customers don't see a need to have their computer on while they are driving.”

Electronic stability control, traction control and antilock brakes are important enough that most of his customers ask for them, Lutz says. “GPS is popular but only since the price has been reduced; there is a lot of competition from hand-held units.”

In some cases, customers want the tech feature only if it is standard equipment. They like cupholders that heat and cool beverages. “People think it's a good idea, but I've never had anyone wanting to pay extra for it,” Lutz says.

In the premium market, brands such as Acura, American Honda Motor Co. Inc.'s upscale division, tend to bundle popular tech features into the vehicle cost.

“Consumers expect their vehicles to have more innovation and tech features built in,” says Jim Brown, general manager for Tonkin Acura in Portland, OR. “Customers expect high-end manufacturers to be on the cutting edge.”

Standard features in Acuras include voice-activated navigation systems, premium sound systems and back-up cameras.

“Our customers appreciate the simplicity of the packaging on technology package-equipped vehicles,” says Brown whose popular list of tech features includes high-functioning navigation systems, as well as Bluetooth and iPod connectivity.

The demand for high-tech features “is pretty robust,” he says, especially as the economy picks up. “We're seeing the overall market firming back up.”

That market recovery is taking hold, says Jeff Engleberg, general manager of Enterprise Motorcars, a BMW store in Appleton, WI.

Recent sales months have been the best in the store's history, he says. “The BMW buyer is still looking for tech features.”

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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