There are few truly "bad" cars anymore, so reviews must be mindful of a vehicle's value for the money and how it stacks up to its competitors.
or years, Consumer Reports has been one of the most-well regarded publications when it comes to car reviews, bestowing its coveted "recommended" status on models it deems worthy of buying. Models that earned "recommended" status have generally sold well over the years, because consumers have come to trust CR's ratings.
However, a Bloomberg report found that the Volkswagen Passat and Honda Civic, along with Chrysler's minivans, were selling well despite poor marks from Consumer Reports, while cars like the Hyundai Elantra, which have scored well with both Consumer Reports and other outlets, are getting passed over.
This begs a few questions: do the opinions of car reviewers and auto analysts matter? Does consumer perception matter more than expert ratings, no matter how objective those ratings are? What information sources are consumers using to research their purchases? Does magazine testing sometimes unfairly punish certain types of vehicles? Is purchase price and the availability of deals a bigger driver of purchase decisions than expert opinion?
Both the Civic and Passat have long been staples on the "recommended" list, but despite falling off the list, both of those cars have posted big sales gains this year. The Passat has sold more than 80,000 units through September of this year, which is an astronomical increase over last year's number of just over 4,000, however, we should note that a redesigned Passat was introduced late in 2011, which may have contributed to the increase.
As for the Civic, its sales are up 40 percent from last year, criticism from the press be damned.
"The reasons consumers buy these cars in spite of not having the 'recommended' title is somewhat different for these two," Ed Kim, Vice President for Industry Analysis at AutoPacific, told us. "Civic has legions of Honda loyalists who would buy the car no matter what. Passat excels in 'perceived quality' as the Bloomberg piece alludes to. It feels like a solid, quality piece. Nice thunk of the doors, solid feel, expensive feeling materials, etc."
"A big point here is that the quality gap has truly closed between the least and most reliable vehicles in the marketplace. One would be truly hard pressed to find a real lemon in the marketplace," Kim said. "Consumer Reports’ methodology (understandably and rightfully so, in my opinion) uses the best and worst reliability ratings as bookends. So, those vehicles that Consumer Reportsrates as less reliable are generally much improved from unreliable vehicles from the past."
"Some cars used to be sold because they were a good deal. Some cars are sold because they are great cars," Dave Sullivan, Manager for Product Analysis at AutoPacific, said.
Consumer behavior can also be notoriously unpredictable. A shopper may arrive at the showroom with a car in mind, only to be swayed by a different vehicle for a myriad of reasons, such as incentives.
"Since there are truly few if any true reliability nightmares in the marketplace anymore, consumers can feel more at ease buying what they want, as opposed to buying what quantitative stats (like reliability ratings) tell them they should buy," Kim said.
"It's important when evaluating vehicles that you put yourself in the shoes of the type of person who is going to buy it," Sullivan said. "Everything should be taken in context and realize that magazines aren't the bible to decide on the next car purchase. That is what made Consumer Reports so popular—no outside influence—they don't care who they piss off. CR beat up on the Civic and it hasn't really put a dent in their sales."
Consumer research has shifted to the internet. Traditional print reviews are still mixed in with online reviews, but thanks to the reach of social media and the internet, consumer-written reviews are increasing in popularity.
"Our data do suggest that first person experience is the most important info source, followed by second person influence (friends, salespeople, automaker websites/brochures)," Kim said. "Third party sources, including expert opinion, come below that. Of those, third-party internet websites rank the highest, followed by print articles. Anyways, the takeaway here, in my opinion, is that because there are few if any 'bad' cars out there, expert opinion—while remaining important—lags behind consumers’ direct first person experience with a vehicle."