Design engineers love Fords.
Whether it's the Taurus, Explorer, or F-series pickup, more of our readers drive a Ford than any other make, and they say they'd buy one again. The top five cars driven by our readers are Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda, and Chrysler, according to the results of our 22nd annual auto survey.
And if they were buying a new car today, they'd get nearly the same—Ford, Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet, and Chrysler. The rest of each list is split evenly between 16 other choices. Ford was also fave in 2000 and 1999, with a few lapses into the top three before that.
Money changes everything. But ranking the best cars by dollar value brought different results. Hondas won as the best value vehicles, and BMWs won as the best luxury cars. The list changed yet again when we asked readers to name their "dream vehicle"—perennial favorite Mercedes-Benz was tops, closely followed by BMW, and then the Chevy Corvette.
One aerospace engineer in Wichita, KS said he bought his 1999 Chevy Monte Carlo only because "it was used and cheaper than new." But now that he can afford to buy a new vehicle, he's looking at Acuras and lower-end Mercedes, in a search for greater reliability.
Function over form. How to explain the variation? When it actually comes to driving, engineers value function over form. More than 44% of them said they would buy a used car, instead of new.
And the most important attributes for next car purchase were reliability, safety, handling, and price. Less important were brand loyalty, appearance, fit and finish, and the sound system. In other words, our readers are looking for a safe ride at a good value, not a specific make of muscle car with bone-thumping music system.
Josh Voas, a Boeing engineer in New Mexico, said he was looking for a reliable ride when he bought his 1998 Toyota Tacoma pickup. And he's been pleased so far, with over 94,000 miles and no real problems. Although he hopes to put another 200,000 miles on the car, he plans to buy a passenger car in the meantime, for better highway driving. "I despise SUV's which have terrible gas mileage, 4x4, and high clearance, but never leave the pavement," he says. So he is considering the Subaru Outback.
Even the exception to this rule—an engineer in search of an exciting ride—keeps fuel efficiency in mind. Dan Labuda, a senior project engineer at GM (Troy, MI), plans to kill two birds with one stone. Today he drives a GMC Sonoma Pickup because "it was a lease special (cheap) and functional, too." But calling that car "boring," he says he plans to purchase a Honda Accord EX—a choice that would also give him much improved mileage.
Safety first. Since they value reliability so much, it's not surprising that America's engineers have some pointed opinions on how to make our vehicles safer. They say the best technologies to improve safety are: crash-resistant vehicle structures, driver and passenger airbags, skid control, side air bags, and traction control. Scoring lower were high-tech solutions, like: adaptive cruise control, high-intensity headlights, and infrared night vision.
In fact, Design News readers yawned at the prospect of all these space-age gadgets and functions. If they walked into a showroom tomorrow, the features they'd be least likely to request were Internet capability, satellite radio, voice-activated cell phone, navigation system, turbo or supercharger, selectable suspension, and trip computers. They'd be a little more likely to demand basic functions like cupholders, automatic adjustable seats, power side mirrors, and an anti-theft device. But their favorite features in a new car focus on safety: anti-lock brakes, dual air bags, cruise control, full-size spare tire, and traction control.
Some drivers have a very good reason to be so concerned about safety—carrying and protecting their families. Like many engineers in the auto industry, Neil Wasylewski picked a car largely because of his insider discount. But he considered his family first, over fuel efficiency or an exciting ride.
"I had a GM employee discount at the time, I wanted a 4×4, and I was starting a family, so it kind of added up," he says of his 1996 GMC Jimmy. He plans to apply the same logic when buying his next car, although one of the variables has changed—"I no longer have the GM discount, I now have the Ford employee discount, so I will most likely replace this vehicle with an Explorer within the next four months," says Wasylewski, an advanced chassis engineer in Dearborn, MI.
The future of fuel. Unimpressed by luxury gadgets, engineers named fuel efficiency as the most pressing automotive challenge of the next decade. Asked to rank Detroit's most important engineering challenges by 2011, they ranked: alternate fuel and fuel economy as the top two (followed by: reducing vehicle manufacturing cost, quality, environmental regulations, safety, and 42V architecture).
Maybe that's because our readers have a low pain tolerance when it comes to the gas bill. Asked at what point pump prices would affect their car-buying choices, nearly one third (31.3%) said they'd already hit that limit at $2.00 (last summer's peak in some places). Responses trailed off at higher prices, such as $2.50 (15.3%), $3.00 (16.3%), and $4.00 (20.7%). Just 12.8% said they were willing to pay $5.00 and over.
Look in the crystal ball and tell us which technology will help solve these energy woes, we asked. Engineers ignored the diesel engines that are zooming around Europe at 80-100 mpg, and named hybrid, fuel cell, and electric as the top three alternative fuel technologies that could help solve current energy shortages (ethanol and diesel brought up the rear).
And that's true when it comes to energy policy, too. Asked which policies would make the most impact on U.S. energy needs, they named development of alternative fuels, and conservation as the top two (followed by development of U.S. oil resources, establishment of a North American energy policy, price limits, pressure on OPEC, and tapping the strategic petroleum preserve).