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Ugly styling top deal breaker for car buyers

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Posted: 5 pm ET

Memo to automakers: American auto buyers don't want your ugly, expensive cars, so you may as well stop making them. J.D. Power has a new survey out this week which polled 25,000 Americans who bought new cars in May about what factors made them most likely to reject a car during the buying process.

Their top answers, according to The Detroit News? Bad exterior styling (35 percent) and high price (23 percent).

Bad styling was also an issue for the 19 percent of consumers who rejected cars for having an ugly interior. No wonder successful automakers put so much money into design departments and car shows -- if customers perceive a car as ugly, it can scuttle a model very easily, wasting the millions of dollars spent developing and preparing to manufacture it, and possibly doing millions more in damage to an automotive brand (think about the Pontiac Aztek).

The Pontiac Aztek is a classic example of brand-killing ugliness

The Pontiac Aztek is a classic example of brand-killing ugliness

Still, it's funny that so many people prioritize bad styling over things like poor reliability (20 percent) and the bad reputation of the manufacturer (16 percent). First off, it's surprising from a pragmatic standpoint -- after all, the over-$25,000 price tag of the average new car is a major investment for most people and you'd think they'd want it to stick around for a few years.

But it's also surprising based on what you see in the marketplace. After all, perennial bestsellers like the Ford Taurus, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Corolla have seldom been beautiful cars. But maybe they're taking their bite out of that 36 percent of car buyers who care about reliability and reputation and leaving the rest to buy the beautiful but less reliable cars from other brands.

Oh, and about Toyota:

Toyota brands gained in some areas, such as pricing and styling, but saw a rise in the proportion of customers avoiding its vehicles because of the harm to the company's reputation. "We were right in the thick of the recalls" when the study was conducted, said Kerri Wise, director of automotive research at J.D. Power in Westlake Village, Calif.

She said she expected that reaction to subside, given Toyota's efforts to get out the message that it was redoubling efforts to improve quality and ensure the safety of its vehicles.

Toyota has recalled 6.75 million vehicles in the United States this year, most linked to a risk of unintended acceleration. Its U.S. sales this year are flat in a market that has grown 11 percent.

"Vehicle owners were surveyed during a period of highly publicized recalls," said Brian Lyons, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif. "It is not unexpected that many potential buyers' perception of Toyota's longstanding reputation … might be influenced.

Ouch. I don't want to come across as a Toyota hater, but if you want to make a reputation for quality the centerpiece of your marketing strategy, you're going to need to fix the persistent quality problems, because the consumer will clue in.

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