This month, the guys at Consumer Reports are pitching a revised version of their ongoing Ownership Satisfaction Survey, expanding the single question — "Would you buy this vehicle again?" — to ascertain those buyers' assessment of the car's suitability for various functions. They of course didn't ask me, for the most obvious reason: you can't buy anything like my car anymore, this particular model having long since been discontinued. (The last year for the I, indeed for any front-wheel-drive Infiniti, was 2004; the current QX60 is based on a FWD chassis, but it's sold only with all-wheel drive.)

I didn't expect any model to come up with 100-percent satisfaction: at any price level above the most nominal, there's always someone who regrets a purchase. I was curious about the bottom end: was there any car so reviled that no one would touch it ever again? And I did wonder just how well these numbers would track with CR's test results — and with their semi-legendary reliability ratings.

What they seemed to track best, apparently, was MSRP: only three of the top ten start at under $30,000, and all can be worried up to the 40k level by injudicious use of the boxes on the order form. Meanwhile, all but one of the bottom-feeders bore the caul of being Insufficiently Expensive. And while said bottom-feeders were generally not overly reliable, neither were the favorites, which CR handwaved away this way:

It may seem incongruous that cars such as the [Tesla] Model S, [Chevrolet] Corvette, and [Porsche] Macan have below-average reliability yet have such high satisfaction scores. But like all cars in this analysis, they are still under warranty — meaning repairs don't cost owners any money.

Which is plausible enough: none of these cars are over three years old, and the standard warranty on even the lowest-end buggy these days is three years/36,000 miles. Some offer more. (The one exception I know of, and it's out of production, is the Bugatti Veyron, which is covered for two years/24,000 miles, not that many of its 400-odd owners have run up 24,000 miles yet, and you don't want to know how much service runs.) But then, the ten cars at the bottom of the list have the same sort of warranty coverage and presumably haven't run up any repair expense either.

And that got me wondering: did part of the dissatisfaction with the low-priced cars represent resentment by the buyers that this was all they could afford? The Dodge Journey, a crossover based on the old Sebring/Avenger platform, sufficiently low-suds to motivate FCA to sell it as an actual Fiat in some markets, finished near the bottom of the pack, while Dodge's pricier vehicles were more highly prized. A similar effect might have befallen the Jeep Compass/Patriot twins.

Steven Lang, working a slightly different angle about the car at the absolute bottom, opined at TTAC:

Kia decontents the hell out of the Rio (note the roll down windows) and then shucks far too many of these base model cars to dealers who end up catering to what we kindly call in the business the "pulse and a paycheck" clientele. The folks you would never willingly finance yourself, but are more than happy and able to buy any new car in today's market thanks to cheap credit.

Then watch what happens when a better-looking model comes along:

Imagine going to a stop light with your brand new base-to-the-extreme refrigerator white Kia Rio and seeing a Chevy Sonic with a nice set of alloy wheels, a rear spoiler that works well with the design, and enough presence to make it stand out for all the right reasons. That exterior dynamic has a huge impact on long-term customer satisfaction because there is still an element of upscale features to the car. Even if it's a base model.

And indeed, the Sonic finished just above mid-pack among subcompacts, 17 percentage points higher than the Rio. Cue Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is?"

Me, I'm not a fan of groupthink. On the other hand, I must concede that Family Feud is still on the air after nearly four decades, suggesting a deep need for survey results, and I suspect its presumably downscale audience might like some similar figures, if not from Consumer Reports then from someone else, about owner satisfaction of used cars. It would require a truly ginormous database, since the average American car is approaching its teens, and selection bias will always be lurking. Then again, we can't get them to pay for CR's reliability numbers, ten years' worth on the Web site, and there's always the suspicion that some of these folks would be far better off riding the bus. Not that I'm going to tell them that.

The Vent

  8 December 2015

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