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Growing number of car buyers steer clear of imports

Detroit automakers have long abandoned their “Buy American” campaigns, but the public’s interest in bringing more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. seems to be paying off.  Nearly one in seven people who bought new cars last year said they avoided foreign-badged cars specifically because where they were made, according to a J.D. Power study published Thursday.

That was the highest level since the study began in 2003.

At the same time, the number of car buyers who declined to purchase a domestic model because it was made in America dropped to an all-time low 6 percent.

A "buy-American sentiment" that has been growing since the onset of the Great Recession of 2007 may be partly responsible, along with the rising quality and reliability of U.S.-made cars, said Jon Osborn, research director at J.D. Power.

The study also found that word-of-mouth is typically a critical factor in the choice a car buyer makes, yet conventional wisdom about which brands have the best quality may be sorely out of date. the study found that 40 percent of buyers said they steered clear of one brand or another because of what they had heard about quality, rather than actually checking for the latest data.

The so-called "Avoider Study" also found that fuel economy is now the most influential factor in choosing – or avoiding – a product, though factors like price and styling are also strongly influential.

“The fact that so many new-vehicle buyers may be basing their opinions about quality and reliability on pre-conceived notions, rather than concrete information or data, demonstrates how important it is for automakers to promote the quality and reliability of their models,” said Osborn, research director at J.D. Power and Associates.

That’s especially significant for brands that have experienced “marked improvements” in recent years, Osborn said, such as Ford and Hyundai, where word-of-mouth might lag the brands’ reality.  He suggested those makers must proactively tell their quality story, “rather than just waiting for perceptions to change over time.”

The study, which relied on responses from more than 24,000 buyers of 2011 vehicles, found a dramatic shift under way when it came to consumer attitudes toward a vehicle’s place of origin. In recent decades, there was a strong and growing trend favoring imports.  But the pendulum appears to be reversing direction. 

The latest study was initiated about the time gas prices had just begin dropping from their 2011 peak, so it may not be a surprise that fuel economy was the single biggest factor in choosing or avoiding a particular model, according to the Power report, “surpassing the influence of other key reasons such as reliability, the deal and exterior styling, which were the most influential purchase reasons in 2010.”

But price and styling were still significant factors – especially when it came to the new battery-car niche. In fact, the Avoider Study discovered that price was the single biggest reason shoppers steered clear of the roughly $40,000 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid (despite an available $7,500 federal tax credit), while exterior styling were the single-biggest turn-offs for those who might have otherwise purchased a Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle or Toyota Prius hybrid.

Performance was another turn-off, especially with the Prius, Power reports.

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