Owners Find That Downsizing Doesn't Necessarily Mean Downgrading

The adage "Good things come in small packages" has never been more true, at least when it comes to today's new cars and trucks. The latest automotive study by J.D. Power and Associates suggests that owners of small cars and light trucks are often just as satisfied with their vehicles as owners of larger ones.

During the past six years, vehicle appeal, as measured by the J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study has significantly increased. Today's smaller vehicles are, in many cases, more appealing than the larger vehicles they replaced. In 2012, the average APEAL Study score for vehicles in the compact/sub-compact segment is 765 points (on a 1,000-point scale), which is the same as the average for midsize vehicles in the study just four years ago.  Similarly, in 2012, the average APEAL Study score for vehicles in the midsize premium segment is 844, the same as the average for large premium vehicles four years ago.

"New-vehicle buyers who downsize are not making the sacrifice that they once were," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates.  "Automakers are heavily focused on providing the U.S. market with appealing smaller models, and buyers may be surprised at just how good some of them are."

The 2012 APEAL Study finds that 27 percent of new-vehicle buyers who replaced a vehicle downsized, meaning they purchased a new vehicle in a smaller segment than the vehicle they replaced. In contrast, only 13 percent of buyers "upsized," while 60 percent purchased a new vehicle in the same segment as their previous vehicle.

"For many years, almost twice as many vehicle owners have downsized, compared with those who have upsized," said Sargent. "Although larger models continue to attain higher APEAL Study scores than smaller models, as they typically provide higher performance, have more pleasing styling, are more comfortable and include more features, owners who downsize find that today's compact models are not the 'econoboxes' that they may have imagined. For example, most compact vehicles are more substantial than in the past and perform much better on the road. They also have many of the features and appointments that were previously found only on larger models such as navigation system and various entertainment options. Vehicle owners who downsize are finding that they are actually upgrading when they buy a new vehicle."

The downsizing trend also has an impact on owner satisfaction with the fuel economy of their new vehicle. While overall vehicle appeal continues to improve, increasing seven points year over year, the greatest improvement is in fuel economy. Furthermore, 47% of owners say gas mileage was one of the most important factors in choosing their new vehicle, up from 40 percent in 2011.

Other key findings from the 2012 APEAL Study include:

Consumer Tips
  • J.D. Power offers the following tips to consumers when purchasing a new vehicle:
  • Have realistic expectations about the fuel economy of your vehicle, and remember that the city/highway/combined mileage ranges listed on the window sticker are merely estimates provided by the EPA. Your actual miles per gallon will vary due to many factors, including driving and weather conditions, driving style, tire inflation and the overall condition of your vehicle.
  • Know the type of fuel your prospective new vehicle requires, including premium unleaded or diesel, and take that into account when budgeting for it.
  • Before you buy, ask your salesperson to demonstrate all of the audio/entertainment/navigation features on the vehicle. Also, have them assist you in connecting your mobile device or portable audio player to the vehicle's communication system or audio interface in order to test for a good hands-free connection and to make sure the system recognizes your commands.
  • Although exterior styling is the highest-scoring category in the 2012 APEAL Study and often the most significant purchase reason for many buyers, consider all aspects of a vehicle to ensure that in addition to looking good to you, it also meets your needs. Some vehicles that look good may have design-related issues, such as being hard to see out of, or may not offer the cargo space you desire.
  • If you plan to use infant/child safety seats in your new vehicle, practice installing them in the new vehicle before you buy to ensure a good fit and easy installation. Similarly, if buying a vehicle with third-row seats, make sure all cargo, including strollers and sports equipment, fits with the third row in place.
  • Many vehicles today with an automatic transmission are geared toward fuel economy. If the vehicle you are considering is equipped with an automatic, make sure during the test drive that the vehicle offers the performance you are looking for. If the transmission has a "Sport" mode, activate it and see if there is a noticeable difference in shift dynamics. Also, check for any hesitation or delay between gears.
  • Don't immediately dismiss a particular brand or model because of misperceptions about performance. Today, many new-vehicle models aren't necessarily associated with "performance" but actually offer high levels of owner appeal, and should be considered as well.
View the 2012 APEAL Study


About the Study
The APEAL Study examines how gratifying a new vehicle is to own and drive, based on owner evaluations of more than 80 vehicle attributes. The 2012 APEAL Study is based on responses gathered between February and May 2012 from more than 74,000 purchasers and lessees of new 2012 model-year cars and light trucks who were surveyed after the first 90 days of ownership. The APEAL Study complements the Initial Quality Study (IQS), which focuses on problems experienced by owners during the first 90 days of ownership.