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How a car looks is the biggest reason people buy: study

It’s best to avoid face-to-face purchase negotiations, says Peter Cheney.

<240>J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

J.D. Power's latest Auto Avoider Study found styling – interior and exterior – were the top two factors that caused consumer to buy or avoid models.

Reliability finished third, with 55 per cent of new-vehicle buyers citing it as a leading reason, compared with 51 per cent in last year's report and 48 per cent in 2013. It was also a deal-breaker for 17 per cent of shoppers, compared with 14 per cent in the 2015 report.

The increased sensitivity to reliability in recent years is a warning to manufacturers that, despite steady advances in quality, consumers are willing to drop models off their shopping list if they're uncertain about long-term durability.

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"It became pretty clear to us that the pretty widespread media coverage of recalls by many automotive companies last year probably was the driving force behind this," says Dave Sargent, J.D. Power's global automotive vice-president.

U.S. auto recalls, including the GM ignition-switch problem and exploding Takata airbags, hit more than 51 million vehicles last year, beating the previous record of just less than 51 million in 2014. Recalls were also at an all-time high in Canada.

The study was conducted between last July and September among nearly 26,500 owners who registered a new vehicle in April and May 2015. A similar survey in Canada produced similar answers but Sargent says specific results could not be released because a private client commissioned the poll.

The potential recall damage shows how vulnerable manufacturers can become to relying on a relative handful of outside suppliers for key components, says Blair Qualey, president of the New Car Dealers Association of British Columbia.

"Dealers in some circumstances, quite frankly, have been as shocked as the consumers have in some of the higher-profile things we've seen over the last while," he says.

Sargent says mass-market models were flagged more than premium ones, and European and Asian brands did disproportionately better than the Big Three – despite data showing they've largely closed the quality gap. It may be some deep cultural memory of the bad old days of Monday cars and Friday cars.

The study's other major revelation is the increasing dominance of the Internet when it comes to choosing a vehicle. On average, buyers physically shop three models and more than half of respondents who bought new purchased the exact make and model they wanted.

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"A lot of consumers do the vast majority of their shopping online and will get their short list, then just go to those dealers," says Sargent.

That puts more pressure on dealers to provide a good experience or risk the buyer going to whatever was No. 2 on their list.

"Don't let that person go because there aren't that many others who are going to come in the door," says Sargent.

Dealers understand that, says Qualey, noting many have invested in new showrooms that feature things like coffee bars and WiFi. They're also working closely with manufacturers to train sales staff so they know at least as much about the products as customers.

"People don't want to spend hours and hours in the dealership now," he says. "They come in with their shortlist and their list of questions and they want to be helped quickly. Dealers are working very, very hard now to make sure that the customer experience in the store matches that."

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