The Toyota Camry edged out Ford's Taurus as the car Design News readers would pick if buying a new vehicle--marking the first time in 11 years the popular Taurus didn't emerge as the number-one choice.
But although Taurus was bumped from its perennial perch, Ford fared well in the 17th annual Design News Automotive Survey, emerging as the top company readers would buy from if they were in the market today. "Ford is the current car manufacturer of choice," concludes Cahners Research, which conducted the survey of 2,500 Design News subscribers.
What if price were no object? The Dodge Viper muscle car emerged as engineers' dream machine this year--yet another sign that Americans still want size as well as speed when driving down the highway. Next on the wish lists: Corvette, Porsche, and Mercedes.
• Reliability is the most important factor for Design Newsreaders when buying a new car, followed by price and safety.
• Traction control is the most effective new safety technology, beating side-impact air bags and collision-avoidance systems.
• The most effective alternative to gasoline is natural gas, not electricity.
• Ford makes the best engineered American cars, with Dodge, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Saturn next.
• More than a quarter of those who answered the survey would consider buying an electric vehicle.
• Respondents favor Saturn for the budget-conscious (under-$15,000), Ford in the $15,000-$25,000 range, and Lexus among luxury brands. For overall value, though, Honda placed first.
Next purchase. Reliability is the number-one feature Design News readers look for in an automobile, cited by 51.3% as being first- or second-most important. Price came in second at 31%, trailed by safety (21%), appearance (18.4%), and handling (15.2%).
Fuel efficiency ranked a distant seventh (just after inside comfort)--perhaps not surprising, considering the industry's move toward sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans. Americans, it seems, have put the gasoline crises of the 1970s far behind them--and with some of the world's cheapest prices at the pump, public concern for fuel efficiency seems to be flagging.
"American cars consume on average twice as much fuel as those in Europe and Japan," notes the London-based Economist--despite U.S. government fuel-economy regulations aimed at increasing fuel efficiency. Europe and Japan, however, have substantially steeper gasoline taxes.
The best way to meet ever-tightening federal fuel-conservation requirements is by making lighter vehicles, 31.3% of respondents say. Another 19.8% cite continuously variable transmissions, 18.5% favor flywheel energy storage, and 11.4% give improved aerodynamics the nod.
For those seeking something besides the conventional sedan or coupe, a sport-utility vehicle would be the top choice, named by 26%, followed closely by a pickup at 25%, and then minivans at 21.9%. The venerable station wagon was mired at 6.3%.
Alternative vehicles. While representing a microscopic portion of today's market, a fair number of Design News readers (25.9%) say they'd consider buying an electric vehicle in the future. More than 80% say such vehicles first need longer distances between charges, and another 67.6% cited longer-life batteries.
But would-be buyers in America are worried about sticker shock as well as battery life. More than 57% of potential EV purchasers say prices must come down before they'd be ready to buy. The GM Saturn production electric car will cost roughly $35,000, although initially it will be available for leasing only, and government subsidies or tax breaks might cut the final costs.
Other EV drawbacks to be overcome, engineers say: more convenient recharging infrastructure (52.3%) and shorter recharge times (50.5%).
Natural gas emerges as the most popular alternative fuel system among those surveyed (36.9%), outpacing electricity (17.5%), hydrogen (17.2%), ethanol (11.5%), reformulat-ed gas (7.3%), and methanol (6.8%).
"Natural-gas technology is much better understood. The economics are favorable, and we can do it now," notes David Cole, director of the Office of the Study of Auto Transportation at the University of Michigan. Major problems to be solved, he says: the need for high-pressure fueling, and increasing vehicle range.
The engineers surveyed believe traffic-congestion woes can better be solved by public policy than technology. Top two suggestions: flexible working hours (71%) and improved mass transit (66.5%). Intelligent-vehicle highway systems ranked third, at 41.8%.
Top models. Among the survey respondents, 4.1% would buy a Camry, followed by 3.8% for the Taurus or Taurus SHO, 3.3% for a Ford pickup, 2.7% for a Honda Accord, and 2.5% each for Chevy Blazer and Ford Explorer.
Saturn is the under-$15,000 car respondents tab as tops (17.6%), followed by a Honda Civic (12.6%), Dodge Neon (10.4%), and Ford Escort (6.1%).
In the mid-range ($15,000 to $25,000), Ford edges out Toyota 14% to 13.2% as best manufacturer, with Honda (12.1%), Dodge (9.1%), and Chevrolet (7.9%) rounding out the top five. But when it came to specific models, the Camry ranks first with 10.2%, Accord second at 9.1%, Taurus/Taurus SHO at 7.5%, Dodge Intrepid fourth with 4.9%, and Chevrolet coming in next with the Lumina (3%) and Camaro (2.3%).
Lexus drove away with top high-end (over $25,000) honors, at 17.2%. Mercedes-Benz pulled in second (13.9%), BMW and Lincoln tied for third (7.8%), and Cadillac pulled in next (6.1%).
Chrysler was the big winner in "most improved quality/performance," with Ford second and GMC third.
And Honda is considered best car maker for overall value, at 12.8%, followed by Ford (11.2%), Chevrolet (9.3%), Toyota (8.9%), and Dodge (8.1%).
As for what they actually drive today, the largest single segment of Design News readers (16.4%) owns Fords, followed by Chevrolets (12.7%), Toyotas (8.8%), Hondas (7.5%), and Dodges (7.3%). The Taurus or Taurus SHO was the most-often cited car currently owned (4.2%), with the Honda Accord at 3.9%, the Civic and Camry tied at 2.6%, and Toyota pickup and Jeep Cherokee at 2.3%.
What, exactly, is "safe?" Not surprisingly, Design News' engineer readers say the number-one reason a car is safe is because it is well designed and built. But close behind is that it is large--yet another reason fuel economy doesn't top the list of vehicle preferences. Next: air bags.
Volvo continues its perennial perch as making the safest cars, with 34.5% of those responding naming the Swedish automaker. Mercedes was a distant second at 11.1%, followed by Ford, Chevrolet, and Buick.
Cars of the future. What do today's engineers want to see in the vehicles of tomorrow? More than a third--37.6%--hope for collision-avoidance systems in all new cars, while 31.3% are looking for innovative engines.
Way down the road--half a century or so--hybrid engines are likely to prevail, 52.2% predicted. Another 21.6% expect IC gas, and 19% forsee electric vehicles ruling the roads.
Future automobiles are likely to contain more graphite/epoxy composites, said a whopping 85.2% of the engineers surveyed, as well as plastics (80.7%), aluminum (68.5%), and ceramics (67.2%). Only 23% expected magnesium usage to increase, and a slender 1.3% mentioned steel.
The most important engineering challenge facing Detroit: cutting costs, with 34.4% of those responding to the survey citing price as the key issue for automakers. Environmental regulations were cited by one-fifth of the engineers surveyed as the major issue confronting auto manufacturers, followed by fuel economy (17.3%), alternate fuel (11.5%), quality (10.4%), safety (3.5%), and power (just 0.3%).
Detroit seems to be taking high-price criticism to heart. Cole says a host of innovations, including an increasing reliance on computer analysis instead of "build and test and try," is shaving both time and money off auto designs.
Employees throughout a company sometimes chip in to cut costs. At Ford, for example, engineers and factory workers asked for ideas came up with $180 in reduced cost for the 1997 model. "That may not sound like much on a car whose sticker price starts at $17,995," the Wall Street Journal notes. "In fact, no savings are too small given the competition Ford is facing."