Yes, it's true. When it comes to life, we just want it all. We want the attractive spouse, who also happens to be smart, kind, well-paid and good with money. But it's real life we're talking about here. We never get it all, do we? The same principle also applies to cars. We generally know what our automotive needs are, but then there are cars that we just pine for as we damn all the pragmatic reasons why we shouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole.

2018 Nissan Versa blue driving sun shining
Let's face it. No one lusts for a Nissan Versa, no matter how much sun is shining behind it.

Granted, we all want different things in cars. Some like sports cars, while others really love station wagons or that rugged pickup truck. To each his/her own. But we can all argue that it's hard to decide between what we actually need and what our automotive lusts crave. So, how can you make the right decision, and are these two qualities mutually exclusive or can you have your cake and eat it, too?

Each year, the market research firm, J.D. Power conducts a survey of tens of thousands of new-vehicle owners find out about their ownership experiences, and then publishes their results on why people buy certain vehicles and avoid others. Here are the top ten reasons why people buy, in order:

  1. Predicted Reliability
  2. Styling
  3. Previous Experience with Brand/Model
  4. Reputation/Reviews
  5. Ride/Handling
  6. Price/Payment
  7. Safety (tie)
  8. Fuel Economy (tie)
  9. Quality of Workmanship
  10. Four-Wheel Drive/All-Wheel Drive

So you can see that both practicality and passion rank at the top of car buyers' priorities when they shop, and this is no surprise. Even though the vast majority of car buyer priorities are pragmatically focused, styling remains at the top of the heap.

The Case for Practical 

2017 Toyota Corolla blue parked

The current-gen Toyota Corolla above has practicality written all over it. It's not especially fun to drive, nor is it a head-turner. Hell, it doesn't even elicit a modicum of desire from an in-car tech approach since it's infotainment system is dated, and it doesn't even have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. But, what it does have is fuel efficiency, safety, and reliability out the yingyang. What does that equate to? Practicality. 

  • Practical cars are largely utilitarian by design. Rather than getting you excited, they are Point A to Point B transportation. 
  • They tend to be purposeful, meaning their form follows their function. Economy cars, base model pickup trucks, minivans. You get it. 
  • Practical vehicles eschew fancy details like leather, large infotainment screens, and sporty suspensions. 
  • As a result of the aforementioned aspects, practical vehicles also tend to be more affordable because the investment on the part of the automaker is small. 
  • If you get the right practical car, there's less to break over time because it's not packed with a ton of stuff that can go wrong. There are fewer electronic devices, fewer complex mechanical parts that exist because of styling. No turbos to wear out, no all-wheel drive systems to fail, nothing overly complicated to make a mess of things.

But the truth of the matter is that there's only handful of people who buy purely for practical reasons. Much of the practical car buy is determined by what we can afford and what we really need. Vehicles like minivans and economy cars fill this requirement. But what oftentimes happens is that car buyers try to rationalize an emotional car purchase by saying their needs are actually not as stringent so they can purchase the car they really want.

2018 honda odyssey white

So many families that would benefit from a minivan purchase decide to go with a three-row SUV that looks better. Car buyers will spend more than they can afford for a car that makes them feel better about themselves, but if they're faced with burgeoning needs like hauling five kids and their gear, they may just have to settle for mostly practical. This is why minivan manufacturers are trying to add racy styling, fancy wheels, and opulent levels of interior trim in order to satisfy customers at an emotional level.

The Case for Passion

2018 Jaguar F-Type grey curvy road top down

Even people who don't care about cars that much will admit that a Jaguar F-Type is pretty damned beautiful. It's the kind of car that makes people feel something. Damn the awful reliability of Jaguar cars, this thing will pay you back in spades in terms of envious looks and compliments wherever you go. You have to tell yourself that the number of glitches and repair shop visits are more than worth it because of the way the car makes you feel. But is it really worth it?

  • Emotional cars are chosen by customers based largely on appearance. Many owners have previously driven practical cars and change their minds when they can finally afford more expensive vehicles.
  • If you shop based on passion and the vehicle you choose manages to have even just average reliability, chances are you'll get a thrill out of driving it even after years of ownership.

Even a car buyer whose first priority is practicality may end up choosing one practical car over another practical car based on styling, available colors, or another superficial characteristic, which goes to prove that passion/emotion almost always plays a role. 

2018 land rover range rover blue

Do most SUV owners really need towing and off-road capability? No. In fact, most SUV owners never come close to utilizing the full capability of the vehicle they've purchased. The Range Rover is a fine example. It's one of the most off-road-ready SUVs on the market, yet most of them will never see anything resembling off-road. They're largely image vehicles because they convey a higher level of status and wealth. These are more emotional purchases.

But most folks can't help buy to employ a degree of emotion when making a purchase even if they have to lean towards the practical. This is why you see red Nissan Sentras with aftermarket wheels. If we were all practically-minded, we'd purchase Toyota RAV4s with all-wheel drive, clad in white with small diameter wheels. The fact remains that we want to feel good about the cars we drive rather than just satisfied with our purchase because it makes sense.

How To Get Both

2018 Mazda CX-5 red with couple

At the end of the day, we can't always have it all, but that doesn't mean we can't get most of the boxes ticked. Take a look at Mazda's vehicles. Not only are they affordable, fuel efficient, safe, and highly ergonomic, they're also very well styled compared to the competition. They actually satisfy most owners criteria, except for perhaps brand cache. But most owners will have to compromise in some capacity. They just have to decide what that compromise will be. 

Regardless of which vehicle you choose, our advice is to get what you need, along with a dose of styling, technology that's easy to use, and some fun in the driving experience. No matter how beautiful a car is, if you abandon reliability and daily usability, you'll just get frustrated. If you shop wisely, you can get a vehicle that works for your needs and also attractive. 

  • Shop the J.D. Power list by reading each category thoroughly here and performing your shopping research accordingly. 
  • Check the Consumer Reports list of brand reliability and best car brands.
  • Choose three to four vehicles that meet your requirements and desires. List pros and cons for each vehicle in an easy-to-read list. 
  • Make your decision based on which priorities are the most important