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Consumer choice


The American consumer has unprecedented choice when it comes to buying a car. By my count, 339 separate car models are on sale in the United States, and that’s not even counting the specialty carmakers, like TVR, Callaway, Mosler and Saleen.

Cars are the most expensive purchase most people make after their homes. And yet what do people rely on when making that choice? Instinct. Emotion. Cultural pressure. Advice from friends (and the infamous "brother-in-law") plays a role, as do persuasive salespeople, TV commercials, print ads and the car magazines whose judgment is influenced by them.

It’s not surprising, then, that people often make bad choices. For many buyers, a car’s image (what it says about its driver) is more important than its appropriateness as daily transportation, its reliability or its fuel economy. (This last consideration has often placed near the bottom of importance to car buyers, though soaring gas prices may be moving it higher.)

A perfect illustration of this is the decline of the practical minivan as mainstream American transportation. Because they’re associated with "soccer moms," carmakers can’t give them away. In 2000, as sport-utility vehicle sales soared, Chrysler lost a third of the minivan sales that had once been a cornerstone of its business.

As an auto columnist, I’m frequently asked for advice by friends and family. My experience is that most people want their own choices confirmed. I doubt that many end up driving away in the plain-Jane econoboxes that I invariably recommend. How else to explain that many of my friends and family own SUVs, despite my fulminations?

For 10 percent of car buyers — the savvier 10 percent, I’d say — Consumer Reports is their bible. The magazine has been testing cars for 50 years, and it does so with no thought other than the consumer getting his money’s worth. A key consideration for Consumer Reports is reliability, a factor tracked by few other auto evaluators. The magazine has 3.5 million subscribers, and 480,000 of them send in reliability reports on the products they buy, including cars.

Vehicles actually tested by the magazine are purchased from dealers, then put into regular service by the staff for 2,000 miles. If there’s a problem, it should show up. Domestic manufacturers don’t fare particularly well in reliability ratings, and both Ford and DaimlerChrysler received black eyes in the annual auto issue published this month. Daimler’s Mercedes line also took a hit. General Motors talks about "quality" quite a bit, but its Cadillac line suffers from the worst reliability in the industry.

One of the reasons I routinely recommend Japanese-made cars is their exceptional reliability, which continues in 2003. I’m pleased to see that the greater complexity of environmentally responsible gas-electric hybrid cars (Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight) didn’t affect their reliability. The Prius is, in fact, rated second for reliability in a 17-car field.

Consumer Reports‘ chief auto tester, David Champion, gives this advice to car buyers: "Don’t fall in love with the style. Do your homework ahead of time and really think about what you will be using the car for in the next three to four years. Make sure the car you get really meets your needs. When you visit the dealer, take the car out for a minimum of a 30- to 40-minute test drive." Then, with all emotional faculties turned off, make your choice.

Caveat: In a recent column, I praised the road-holding of the Infiniti G35 Sport Coupe. It does indeed hug the highway in dry conditions, but after hitting "send" on my computer, the snow began to fall and the rear-wheel-drive G35 was a slippin’ and a slidin’. It’s the 2003 Motor Trend "Car of the Year," but it needs to be able to handle winter driving. Could rear drive complicated by high-performance tires be the problem?

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