Econobox Or Luxury? A Car's A Car, Per Study


Unless one is really focused on the luxury car -- and the driving experience -- all of that leather, muscle, nicer buttons, six ventilating fans under one's butt, the high-end speakers, the admiring glances and the nameplate that screams "I'm Hamptons bound" doesn't provide much over the long haul.

In other words, you may really love what that new luxury car does for you at the test-drive and in the days after you've purchased the new premium car -- but after a few weeks of ownership, the experience of driving pretty much becomes the visceral version of gazing at a traffic jam from an overpass: it's kind of all the same, whether econobox or Maserati.

That insight, or a more prosaic version of it, is the takeaway from a new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Jing Xu of Peking University. The study asked why it is difficult for people to learn from their own consumption experiences. Specifically, why is it that drivers of luxury cars believe that their car is a major source of joy, although their experience is usually what they would have in an economy car.



"Almost everyone assumes that driving a luxury car is more enjoyable than driving an economy car, but the reality is more complicated," said Schwarz, professor of marketing at Michigan's Ross School of Business, in a release on the study. "When drivers focus on their car while driving, a luxury car is indeed more fun than an economy car. But most of the time, the driver's mind is preoccupied with the mundane issues of daily life and the car makes little difference."

The researchers report that they gauged U-M students on the intensity of their experience of 10 positive or negative emotions while driving a BMW, a Honda Accord or a Ford Escort. What the students expected was that the intensity of their positive feelings would increase with the value of the car. And indeed, their experience pretty much matched their expectation.

The researchers then asked other survey respondents who were not students what kind of car they drive and then how they usually feel while driving it. Like the students, the greater the value of the vehicle, the more positive emotions.

But for both of these groups, the questions were preceded by identification with the vehicle. What if the vehicle is taken out of the equation? To test that, the scientists asked a new group to recall their most recent commute to work or the last time they drove their cars for at least 20 minutes, regardless of the nature of the trip.

They were then asked how they felt while driving during those specific trips. This time, the value of the car made absolutely no difference in drivers' reports of how they felt. That's because it was not until the end of the survey that they were asked what kind of car they drive (versus at the outset in the initial two groups.)

Said Schwarz, who is also a psychology professor and research professor at U-M's Institute for Social Research: "During the test drive of a new car, our attention is focused on the car, and the more luxurious it is, the better we feel while driving it. This experience is real, visceral and compelling." But, he says, people forget that after a few weeks of ownership, "it no longer captures all of our attention and other things will be on our minds while driving. As soon as that happens, we would feel just as well driving a cheaper alternative."

1 comment about "Econobox Or Luxury? A Car's A Car, Per Study ".
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  1. Bob Tarren from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, July 27, 2011 at 9:34 a.m.

    This is a load of wishful thinking on the part of the professors. A few observational points to support my case:

    - You are a car person, or you are not. For the most part people fall into one or the other category. Some feel that an occassional rain suffices for washing their car, others are have a good supply of Mother's or Meguiar's wash and wax products in the garage. To suggest otherwise ignores stacks of research into attitudes and behaviors, especially among people with discretionary incomes. As income increases over time people may adopt more car engagement. But if you have it, you have it.

    - Car love, aspiration,or engagement (or whatever people wish to call it) is emotionally based, and has as much to do with the way the driver/owner 'feels' about the experience of owning and driving the car as it does about it's performance. There is a visceral reaction to the look (the shape and stance) and 'promise' of the car. These things may be taken for granted over time, but they do not fade away. And for many 'car people' all it takes is the sound of the engine, or a nice drive to refresh this feeling.

    - A wild guess on my part - many college students today are living with a large case of pragmatism. The job market is terrible, and they may even have an idea as to how much their parents paid for their college. The subjects in this test may be self-filtering their reactions through the lens of their own practicality as well as their lack of significant disposable income.

    Finally, I remember reading a BMW study a number of years ago. They revealed the results of watching how people behaved after they parked their car in a parking lot. Many people simply parked, locked and walked away. However some people parked, locked, walked away, and then turned to look back over their shoulder at their car. This 'look-back' signified the owner's emotional relationship with their car... their check-in to unconsciously remind themselves of how cool their car looked and how it made them feel. They were not congratulating themselves on picking the cloth seats.

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