Is it all about intuitiveness?

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“Intuitive” believe it or not derives from Medieval Latin and is an adjective that means “using on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning” – describing an almost “instinctive” act of mental reasoning, if you will.

And it seems such “instinctive” reasoning is playing a critical role where light vehicles are concerned, at least according to new research by global consulting firm J.D. Power.

According to the company’s 2014 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout study or APEAL for short, although light vehicle OEMs are putting more and more technologies and functionality in their new and redesigned models, satisfaction with these features is not significantly higher among owners of those models than among owners of carryover models.

"Manufacturers often look to new features and technologies to keep their vehicles fresh and attractive, but designing systems that consumers find intuitive and easy to use has been a challenge," noted Renee Stephens, VP-U.S. automotive for J.D. Power, said in a statement.

"Newly launched models surpass carryovers in impressing owners with the look and feel of the vehicle,” Stephens added. “But as we also see in our 2014 Initial Quality Study, owners are not as comfortable with the functionality of the features. To differentiate new models from the pack, automakers must continue to design systems that are not just attractive, but also intuitive and easy to use."

The firm’s APEAL Study, now in its 19th year, gets car and light truck owners evaluate their vehicle across 77 attributes, which combine into an overall APEAL score measured on a 1,000-point scale. J.D. Power noted that it polled more than 86,000 purchasers and lessees of new 2014 model-year cars and light trucks between February and May this year for its 19th APEAL study.

J.D. Power found in its most recent iteration of this survey that APEAL scores for all-new and redesigned models continue to see a lift in APEAL scores compared with carryover models (805 vs. 791, respectively).

However, while satisfaction in areas such as fuel economy and the feel and styling of the interior is higher among owners of all-new and redesigned models than among owners of carryover models, there is less differentiation in terms of the usefulness of the controls and functions for navigation, voice recognition and other technology applications.

The firm stressed that overall APEAL score in 2014 averages 794, which is a 1-point decrease from 2013. Fuel economy is the only category in which there has been improvement year over year (+6 points), which is due in part to an average decline of 3% in fuel prices during the survey period, compared with 2013. Owner-reported average mpg also improves to 25.0 mpg from 24.5 in 2013, resulting in more favorable perceptions of both driving range and mileage.

"Despite improvements this year, fuel economy continues to be the lowest-scoring category in the study by a wide margin," said Stephens. "While many factors influence the fuel performance of a vehicle, an important factor is how the engine and transmission are tuned by the manufacturers. Automakers must find the right balance between owner expectations of fuel economy and areas that affect the driving experience, such as horsepower and transmission performance, which is not an easy task. Customers are not always happy with the trade-off between those characteristics."

Where light trucks are concerned, J.D. Power noted these vehicles nabbed the top slots in terms of APEAL scores:

  • Midsize Pickup: Highest ranked is the Honda Ridgeline followed by Nissan’s Frontier
  • Large Light Duty Pickup: Highest ranked is the Ford F-150 LD, followed by the GMC Sierra LD and Chevrolet Silverado LD
  • Large Heavy Duty Pickup: Highest ranked is the Ford F-250/F-350 Super Duty followed by a tie between the Chevrolet Silverado HD and Ram 2500/3500 HD

It’s interesting to note, however, that while concerns over the “intuitiveness” of vehicle technology from the driver’s perspective is growing, such worries aren’t dampening sales of light vehicles very much.

J.D. Power noted back at the start of July that by its calculations total new-vehicle retail sales in the U.S. are expected to reach 6.5 million for the first half of 2014, a 6% increase over the first half of 2013.

And though retail sales at the beginning of 2014 were hampered by extreme weather conditions, spring delivered what the firm described as a “string of record-setting months,” with sales increasing on a year-over-year basis for each of the first six months of 2014 on a selling-day adjusted basis, according to J.D. Power’s data.

Total light vehicle sales, including sales to fleet buyers, through the first half of 2014 are expected to reach 8.1 million, a 4% increase over the same period in 2013, based on a sales forecast developed jointly by J.D. Power and LMC Automotive.

"New-vehicle demand in the first half of 2014 has been robust, as evidenced by both strong sales and record transaction prices," Thomas King, VP for J.D. Power’s Power Information Network or “PIN,” explained in a statement.

"Looking forward, we expect that strong sales momentum to carry into the second half of the year," he added, pointing out that consumer expenditures on new vehicles through the first half of the year hit a record high of $194 billion, a $14 billion dollar increase compared to the same period in 2013.

Yet that spending may still be largely in response to replacement demand, as the average age of light vehicles continues to climb – a trend noted in this story.

In some ways, then, the jury may still be out on how much a factor “intuitiveness” plays in light vehicle purchasing decisions. Time will tell soon on that, though, methinks.

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