J.D. Power does surveys. Lots and lots of surveys. Its business is collecting people’s opinions about things and then sharing that information with businesses — for a fee. For the past 28 years, it has been asking new car owners how satisfied they are with their cars in something called the U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) study.
For most of that time, the level of overall satisfaction with new cars has risen fairly consistently. But in the past two years, new car buyers report they are less happy with their purchases, a trend that J.D Power says the automotive industry should be concerned about. According to the 2023 study, overall satisfaction is 845 (on a 1,000-point scale), which is a decrease of 2 points from a year ago and 3 points lower than in 2021.
“The decline in consecutive years might look small, but it’s an indicator that larger issues may lie under the surface,” said Frank Hanley, senior director of auto benchmarking at J.D. Power. “Despite the technology and design innovations that manufacturers put into new vehicles, owners are lukewarm about them. While innovations like charging pads, vehicle apps, and advanced audio features should enhance an owner’s experience, this is not the case when problems are experienced. This downward trajectory of satisfaction should be a warning sign to manufacturers that they need to better understand what owners really want in their new vehicles.”
The J.D. Power APEAL Study
The APEAL study is not some small sampling of a few new car buyers. This year, it is based on responses from 84,555 owners of new 2023 model year vehicles who were surveyed after 90 days of ownership. The study was fielded from February through May 2023, based on vehicles registered from November 2022 through February 2023. Here are the ten categories the APEAL survey measures:
- Walking up to your vehicle
- Setting up and starting your vehicle
- Getting in and out of the vehicle
- Your vehicle’s interior
- Your vehicle’s powertrain
- Your vehicle’s driving feel
- Your vehicle keeping you safe
- Using the infotainment system
- Your vehicle’s driving comfort
- Fuel usage
In nine of those categories, customer satisfaction has declined since last year’s survey. The only factor to improve is fuel economy (771), which is up 15 points from 2022. The factor with the largest year-over-year decline is exterior, which decreased from 894 to 888. Satisfaction with exterior styling on new models in 2023 is particularly unremarkable, scoring only 3 points above carryover models.
We here at CleanTechnica have often remarked on how downright ugly many of today’s new cars are. They feature creases and crinkles in the sheetmetal that start nowhere and end abruptly for no apparent reason. Each manufacturer strains to create a distinctive frontend, but most of them wind up looking like the face of an angry shark. Styling has given way to branding.
The latest J.D. Power APEAL study finds that infotainment systems are a prime example of a technology not resonating with today’s buyers. Only 56% of owners prefer to use their vehicle’s built-in system to play audio, down from 70% in 2020. Less than half (45%, 37% and 43%, respectively) prefer to use their vehicle’s built-in system to make phone calls, give voice commands, or for navigation assistance. That suggests many prefer to use the features they are familiar with on their smartphones.
The APEAL study complements other studies from J.D. Power such as its US Initial Quality study and US Tech Experience Index study by measuring owners’ emotional attachment and level of excitement with their new vehicle. The APEAL study asks owners to consider 37 attributes, ranging from the sense of comfort they feel when climbing into the driver’s seat to their exhilaration when they step on the accelerator. The responses to questions about those attributes are aggregated to compute an overall APEAL Index score.
This year, new car buyers in both the premium and mass market segments reported an overall decrease in satisfaction. Compared to last year’s study, satisfaction was 4 points lower among mass market brands and 1 point lower among premium brands. The difference between owners in both groups is 34 points this year.
CleanTechnica readers will want to know about differences between electric vehicles and conventional cars, and J.D. Power has some good news there. For the second year in a row, battery electric vehicles outperform internal combustion engine vehicles in fuel economy — the only factor that showed improvement in this year’s study.
Even with gas prices declining, electric car buyers report they are quite happy with the range of their vehicles, giving them an average score of 797. The fuel economy satisfaction score for conventional cars was only 758. That would seem to suggest that range is not quite the major issue with electric cars that many news outlets and industry observers think it is.
Overall, satisfaction with gasoline-powered cars is the same as it is for plug-in hybrid cars at 842 points. Overall satisfaction with battery electric cars — including Tesla — is just 3 points behind, having risen 2 points since last year’s survey.
J.D. Power summarizes the rankings on Tesla separately, since it sells the most battery electric vehicles by far. Tesla models continue to outperform other electric cars in many areas, but the ratings demonstrate that other manufacturers — particularly Hyundai and Kia — are beginning to challenge Tesla’s dominance.
Overall, J.D. Power says Tesla owners report they are less satisfied this year than in past years. Tesla scored 878 overall — one of the highest scores of any car company, but for 2023, that score is 9 points lower than last year. In fact, its scores in all ten categories are down slightly from last year. However, the Tesla Supercharger network is still rated as superior to any other charging system.
There are a couple of key points from this year’s J.D. Power survey. First, people may not be as impressed with all the newfangled geewizardry they see before them when they climb behind the wheel of their new ride. The automotive industry is falling all over itself to integrate computer and smartphone technology into their vehicles, but that effort leaves many drivers confused.
Tesla takes the simplerer is betterer approach. Everything is displayed on a center screen, making the behind-the-wheel experience more like driving a laptop than a car. Some drivers (myself included) don’t necessarily appreciate a car that does all the thinking for them.
There are those who are quite happy to tune a radio or operate the windshield wipers themselves. On the other hand, my wife and I test drove an electric MINI recently that had more dials and switches than the cockpit of a 747. Somewhere in the middle, there must be a happy medium.
Second, some of the appeal of Tesla automobiles appears to be wearing off as more competitors arrive in the marketplace. It perhaps should not be surprising that the lofty expectations people had about Tesla cars initially are being blunted a bit by familiarity.
It is also possible that Tesla’s decision to build the same car year after year runs counter to people’s expectations. In particular, Chinese electric car manufacturers like BYD, Nio, XPeng, and more seem to introduce new models almost weekly. It’s good to be king, as Tom Petty would say, but being king of the mountain gets tougher as time goes on.
The fact that people in general are somewhat less happy with their new cars is something the wizards in the C suites at car companies should be aware of. A dystopian view might be that folks just don’t enjoy driving as much as they once did. Could the golden age of the automobile be fading?
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