American auto buyers appear to be falling right into the clutches of several auto brands as they switch to smaller new vehicles in response to higher gasoline prices and their need to replace that aging hulk in the garage. Along with better fuel economy, many buyers are gaining amenities, overall better quality and improved functional design than Americans used to get in downsizing their car purchases.
Chevrolet, Kia and Volkswagen are among the leading brand exemplars, as well as beneficiaries, of this trend, according to the conclusions of the annual J.D. Power & Associates APEAL study that was released Wednesday. Each of them has found ways to embody and cater to how Americans are increasingly downsizing with relish, according to the firm's Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout study.
"New-vehicle buyers who downsize are not making the sacrifices that they once were," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive for J.D. Power, in a press release. "Automakers are heavily focused on providing the U.S. market with appealing smaller models, and buyers may be surprised at just how good some of them are."
That's why 27 percent of buyers in the U.S. who replaced a vehicle last year downsized, according to APEAL, while only 13 percent upsized; 60 percent stayed in the same size segment. "Most compact vehicles are more substantial than in the past and perform much better on the road," Sargent explained. "They also have many of the features and appointments that were previously found only on larger models."
Here's a look at how the APEAL results played with some brands:
Chevrolet: The GM mainstay division was the biggest winner in this year's APEAL, receiving the highest number of segment awards for all brands, for its Avalanche, Sonic and Volt models. Of particular note were the high scores for Sonic, the well-equipped new American-made subcompact that replaced the Chevrolet Aveo, a Korean-made econobox, last year, and Volt, the plug-in hybrid that is gaining adherents lately after a slow start.
Kia: The Korean-owned brand has been trying essentially to repeat the performance of its better-known sibling brand, Hyundai, by up-contenting its U.S. models and expanding its marketing. It seems to be working: Kia Optima (in a tie) and Soul both scored highly in APEAL.
Mini: The mini-car brand owned by BMW continues to solidify its leadership of the small but growing tiny-car segment as it wins awards for its Countryman and its Coupe / Roadster. So far, Mini is managing to minimize meaningful competition by other players including the Smart brand, owned by Mercedes-Benz, and Fiat, which is still re-finding its footing in the U.S. market.
Volkswagen: The new, American-made VW Passat finished tied for first as the most appealing mid-size car in the study, among strong placements for several of its models. This was a major victory for Volkswagen, which took apart its previous positioning of Passat -- expensive and undercontented for a mid-size sedan in the U.S. market, and built abroad -- and put it back together again in a largely, better-appointed and more effectively positioned new model -- also with a much lower initial price point to get American buyers to take a look at it. "The [new] Passat has been a tremendous success out of the gate for Volkswagen," Jonathan Browning, CEO of Volkswagen of America, said in a statement. "It further validates our decisoin to produce a German-engineered car that's tailored to American tastes, built right here" in Tennessee.
Audi: The sibling luxury brand of VW nabbed awards for its A6 and A8 models, including the highest overall APEAL score of any model in the industry in 2012 for A8. That is rewarding for Audi executives who introduced an upgraded new version of A8 last year as part of an overall assault on the higher end of the U.S. luxury market, which also included a revamped A6 and a completely new nameplate in between, A7.
Porsche: Also in the process of joining the VW family of brands worldwide, Porsche was distinguished in the APEAL study because it was the highest-ranking overall nameplate for the eighth consecutive year.
Chrysler: Its Dodge and Ram brands joined Jaguar to achieve the greatest year-over-year improvements in the study scores.