NEW J.D. POWER STUDY KEYS ON CARS' VIRTUES

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In recent years, "things gone wrong" has been a major differentiator among automotive brands. But with vehicle quality improving across the board, the marketing focus is shifting to "things gone right."

The trend will be highlighted this week when J.D. Power & Associates announces vehicle rankings based on which models generate the most enjoyment for their owners. The Automotive Performace, Execution & Layout study purports to provide a measure of what consumers like and dislike about areas such as styling, seats, sound system, comfort, heating and cooling, ride and handling, engine performance, and interior layout.

Power, an Agoura Hills, Calif.-based research company, is best known for its syndicated studies measuring customer satisfaction with vehicle quality and dealership experiences. Auto marketers who score highly, such as Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus division, often feature the results in their advertising.

But those studies, which Power will continue to do annually, have focused on negative factors. For instance, Power's Initial Quality Study measures the number of defects that owners report 90 days after purchase.

Some auto marketers have long contended that Power's emphasis on counting complaints ignored the way some brands build sales through positive attributes.

"When we do research, we want to understand what consumers don't like about our cars, but we also want to know what the hot buttons are," said Lynn Myers, general director-brand management and marketing for General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division. "Sometimes the exciters involve bold styling, but it can be something as little as good cupholders."

"Historically, the auto industry has thought about quality in term of defects, and there really was some shoddy quality," said Chance Parker, group director at Power.

While differences in number of defects remain important to many consumers, Power's surveys show that the number of reported problems has been dramatically reduced since the first IQS in 1987. For instance, Mercedes-Benz was the top ranked nameplate in the 1987 IQS with 110 problems per 100 cars, a score that would make it below average in 1995.

Auto brands that score well on APEAL will likely use the results in advertising. Power also is positioning the new study as a valuable tool for product planners and designers by giving them feedback on how customers react to both their own and competitors' vehicles.

The results will be based on an eight-page mail-in questionnaire answered by about 30,000 owners surveyed in May and June, four months into ownership of their new vehicles.

In addition to rating attributes of their own vehicles, respondents were asked to name what other vehicles they shopped before buying, and were asked to rate a list of features they would like to see in future vehicles.

Another market research company, San Diego-based Strategic Vision, came out in May with its own survey that combines the pleasurable and painful aspects of vehicle ownership.

Strategic Vision's survey showed how customer enthusiasm for a vehicle can outweigh flaws, when the Dodge Neon scored highest among small cars even though a higher percentage of buyers experienced problems with the Neon than with other small cars.

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