DN Staff

October 6, 1997

21 Min Read
SUV overpowers traditional cars

For the first time in the 18-year history of the Design News Auto Survey, a sport utility vehicle has taken the lead as the car readers would buy today. The Ford Explorer jumped from last year's number six spot, stealing the coveted number one place in readers' hearts.

The Explorer's coup is one more indication that these roomier, high-ride vehicles have more appeal to car buyers--especially younger, affluent, and child-rearing ones--than the more traditional passenger car. SUVs are the most profitable segment of the automobile industry, according to Santa Ana, CA-based consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. SUVs (along with minivans and pick-up trucks) accounted for 43% of auto sales in the United States in 1996, industry figures report. Sales of SUVs alone are expected to top 2 million units this year.

The industry's response? Make more! Mercedes-Benz entered the SUV market this fall with its ML320 (See "Utility marries Luxury"), and both Volkswagen and Audi have announced plans to offer sport utilities early in the next decade. By the year 2000, industry watchers predict, SUV offerings could top 35, up from 22 in 1996 and just 14 in 1987.

Besides offering the top two models respondents prefer, Ford drove off with first place as the autmaker Design News readers would buy from if in the market today.

Sedans stick with it. The Toyota Camry--which last year stole the number one position from ten-year winner Ford Taurus--now shares the number two spot with Ford F-series pick-ups and the Honda Accord. And after a still-impressive showing in second place last year, the Ford Taurus stalled at number five on the list, in a seven-way tie with the Chevrolet Suburban, Buick Le Sabre, Honda Civic, and others.

But overall, Ford Motor Co. is riding high this year. Besides offering the top two models readers prefer, it continues to be the auto maker Design News readers would buy from if they were in the market today. Ford left other manufacturers in the dust with a 20% vote. Chevrolet came in with 12%, while Buick, Toyota, and Honda placed third with a mere 6% each.

1996 industry figures confirm Ford's popularity. For the 15th year in a row, the company's F-series pick-up was the country's most popular vehicle (car or truck). The Ford Explorer and the Taurus were the third and fourth best-selling vehicles, respectively. In fact, five of the 10 top best sellers for 1996 came from Ford. And the Taurus, ranked number five by Design News readers, captured the industry's best-selling-car title for the fifth year in a row.

If money were no object, Design News readers would opt for something a little more racy. The Chevrolet Corvette regained the number one spot as readers' "dream car," edging out the 1996 winner Dodge Viper by only 1%. Jaguar and Porsche continue to hold appeal, tying for third place and followed closely by Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln Town Car, Ferrari, and Lamborgini. Chevrolet also came in first as dream-car manufacturer, with Mercedes-Benz, Dodge, and Jaguar trailing slightly.

Future priorities. Reliability will be the top consideration in their next automobile, say 37% of Design News readers. Price was the runner up, with 20% of readers ranking it most important, followed closely by appearance at 16%. Inside comfort rose to fourth on the list, and fuel efficiency dropped from seventh to eighth place. These two moves aren't surprising given the growing preference for SUVs. According to a 1996 report from the EPA, the average fuel efficiency for light trucks, including those roomy SUVs, has been just over 21 mpg. In contrast, passenger sedans have had a fleet-wide average of nearly 28 mpg over the past decade.

In the "must haves" category for their next new car, one half of respondents chose anti-lock brakes. Dual air bags and cruise control were a close second and third, with 33 and 28% of readers selecting them as the number one requirement, respectively. Other important features: rear window defogger, traction control, and all-wheel drive.

Meanwhile, it was a clean sweep for Volvo in the safest car category. Nearly one-third of design engineers believe the company makes the safest autos on the road today. Left behind were Ford, with 12% of readers' votes, and Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet with 10% each. Twenty percent of readers also deem Volvos the safest cars on the market.

More than one-quarter of respondents attribute the safety of cars to their large size and weight. According to almost 60% of readers, a crash-worthy vehicle should weigh no less than 2,500 or 3,000 lbs. Design and structure have the second highest impact on car safety, with actual safety features ranking third at 14%.

A whopping 64% of engineers cite front driver and passenger airbags as the number one technology that can make driving safer. Stiffer vehicle structures came in a close second at 59%, barely edging out traction control with 58%. Interestingly, computer interlocks that prevent operation of cars by drunk drivers--technology that is currently not widely available--placed fourth on the list with a significant 54% of readers' votes.

Noted by nearly half of respondents as having the greatest ability to improve driving safety: collision avoidance systems and side-impact air bags. Just over one-third cited greater vehicle weight, while one-quarter marked vehicle radar as having the highest ability to improve safety.

The best...and the rest. Ford manufactures the best-engineered U.S. cars say Design News survey respondents, but not by much. Eighteen percent of readers gave the company top billing; a close 15% gave the nod to Chevrolet. Cadillac took third as top U.S. manufacturer with an 11% showing, followed by Dodge and Saturn.

Readers named the Ford Taurus best-engineered U.S. car for the sixth year in a row, while Chrysler took honors as the auto maker showing the most improvement in product quality and performance.

Those results correspond to readers' choices for best-engineered U.S. car. The Ford Taurus/Taurus SHO and the Chevrolet Corvette tied for the top spot with 10% of the vote each. Saturns came in third with 6%, followed by the Cadillac Seville/STS at 4%. Interestingly, the most-likely-to-be-purchased-next Ford Explorer didn't make the top twelve list of best-engineered cars. Though SUVs offer spaciousness and versatility, the Explorer's absence questions whether there is some truth to the notion that SUVs handle poorly and ride hard.

The Explorer's absence may also make you wonder just what makes a car the "best engineered." The answer: reliability and durability, according to 19% of survey respondents. Style and appearance came in a close second at 16%. The actual engineering design and structure of the vehicle ranked third on the list of what signifies the best engineering, with 15% of readers' votes.

Chrysler dominated the category for cars showing the most improvement in quality and performance in the past five years, with 27% of the vote. Ford and General Motors came next, with 19 and 17%, respectively. Other manufacturers lagged behind with 9% or less. But Toyota took the lead as the manufacturer world-wide with the best combination of technical know-how and business acumen. The company was named number one by 18% of respondents, beating out Ford at 15% and both General Motors and Chrysler at 12% each.

Let's talk price. When it comes to spending money, design engineers are like everyone else: They want a good deal. In the best-new-economy-car-under-$15,000 category, Saturn takes top honors for the sixth year in a row, claiming twice the vote of second-place Dodge Neon. The Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Escort, and Honda Civic tied for third with 7%.

Between $15,000 and $25,000, the Ford Taurus/Taurus SHO is worth a look, say 12% of readers. The Taurus edged out the Toyota Camry by a mere 1% as the best car on the market in its price range. The Pontiac Grand Prix and Honda's Accord, both with 6%, scored third.

For more than $25,000, 9% of design engineers say Lexus is the best bet, followed by Mercedes-Benz (7%) and Cadillac (6%). Lexus and Cadillac were the run-away favorites for the best luxury car under $45,000 as well, both receiving the nod from 14% of respondents. BMW and Mercedes-Benz trailed a distant second at 4%.

How do you get the most bang for your bucks in general? Readers say go with the Ford Taurus/Taurus SHO, or the Toyota Camry, or the Honda Accord. Disaccord is the theme this year, as no clear winner takes the category. The three cars battle for best overall value with 6% of the vote apiece. Similarly, Mercedes-Benz and Saturns tied in second place, at 4%, for best value.

Many respondents, 30%, are willing to spend between $20,000 to $24,999 on their next car purchase, with an almost equal percentage (22%) agreeing to spend between $25,000 and $29,000.

Whatever the price range, the cash will be flowing at traditional dealerships, purchase point of choice for Design News survey respondents. A whopping 67% will head there for their next car, while 7% will drive on down to an automotive superstore. Six percent say they'll buy wherever they can get the best deal.

As an alternative to the typical sedan or coupe, 29% of design engineers say they'd go with a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle. Twenty-four percent would chose a pick-up truck, and 18% a minivan. Something with a little "get up and go" seems to be the ticket--34% of readers would prefer a V-6 engine in their next car, while 20% want a V-8. Vehicles with large engines use more gas compared to smaller cars. Combine that fact with growing interest in SUVs and light trucks, and society's love affair with are raised gas-guzzling vehicles and raises some interesting concerns: The trends could eventually lead not only to higher prices at the gas pump, but also to increased damage to the environment.

Respondents are divided almost equally on whether there is too much emphasis on speed and performance at the expense of reliability. Almost 90% of engineers do agree on one thing, however: Today's cars are too expensive for what they deliver in performance and features. Which innovations do engineer want the most in their new cars? Collision avoidance systems ranked number one at 38%, with innovative engines coming in second at 34%. Greater use of ceramics and composites was the number three request.

Future options. Though interest in alternatives to the traditional sedan is high, interest in alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles is not. An overwhelming 64% of respondents say they would not consider buying an electric vehicle (EV). Only 24% claim they actually would consider it, while 12% are uncertain.

What would it take to make that 64% think seriously about EVs? Big changes in viable travel say most survey respondents. Eighty percent cite longer distances between charges as the number one improvement needed. Thankfully, manufacturers are on the case. General Motors plans to introduce new batteries later this year that will extend the range of its EV1 electric car to 120 miles, up from its current 60 miles. The new nickel-metal hydride battery packs will initially be installed in a few dozen EV coupes for fleet use only. But GM plans to offer the advanced battery as an option for the general public in 1998.

A lower purchase price and longer battery life were also high on the list of improvements, both coming in at 59%. About half of survey respondents want more convenient recharging infrastructures and shorter charging times before they'll consider buying an electric vehicle, and 28% are waiting for more payload. Would such improvements solve the problem? Not for everyone. Eighteen percent of design engineers who responded say they would never buy an electric vehicle. With technology in its current state, respondents indicate purchasing an electric vehicle would only be an option at a reasonable price. Forty-eight percent would consider an EV with a price tag of $10,000 to $19,999 as an option.

Perhaps design engineers' faith in EV technology underlies their cost concerns. Fifty-eight percent of those who responded think hybrid vehicles, rather than EVs, will be most prevalent in 50 years. In contrast, only 14% think EVs will be the most popular option. In either case, changes are coming in the use of materials in cars, say design engineers. More than 80% foresee an increase in plastics, aluminum, and graphite/epoxy composites over the next decade, most likely as a replacement for steel.

To improve fuel efficiency, design engineers are putting their money on continuously variable transmissions. Twenty-nine percent of respondents cite them as the best engineering strategy. Not far behind are lighter vehicles, at 24%, and flywheel energy storage with 21% of the vote.

Three quarters of survey respondents say fuel efficiency and safety are not mutually exclusive. Yet 29% believe large size and weight-both hurdles to fuel efficiency-are what makes a car safest.

Design engineers who responded have clear ideas of the challenges manufacturers face in the next 10 years. At the top of the list: reducing vehicle manufacturing cost, say 38% of respondents. Meeting environmental regulations was cited by 20% of the engineers surveyed as the major issue facing automakers. Developing alternative fuels followed at 17%, along with fuel economy improvements (15%), higher quality (14%), and improved safety (4%).

One way automakers are decreasing manufacturing costs is by improving the production systems. Saginaw Steering (Saginaw, MI), a unit of General Motors' Delphi Automotive systems, embraced Japanese lean manufacturing programs and achieved significant results. A new steering column design combined with a new production system increased productivity by 16% and first-time quality by 60%, the company says. Warranty claims are down 50%. The bottom line for Saginaw: lower costs all around.

Dreams Meet Reality

Engineers' dream cars

1. Chevrolet Corvette

2. Dodge Viper

3. Jaguar


4. Mercedes-Benz

..Lincoln Town Car



5. Chevrolet Suburban

..Mercedes-Benz 500 Series


Amount engineers will pay

Less than $15,000

$15,000 - $19,999

$20,000 - $24,999

$25,000 - $29,999

$30,000 or more

Average amount engineers will pay = $23,469

Safety Features Rule the Road
Necessary engineering featuresin next new car

Anti-lock brakes

Dual air bags

Cruise control

Rear window defogger

Traction control

All wheel drive/FWD

Active suspension

Anti-theft device

Full-size spare tire

Automatic climate control

Tilt steering wheel

Power side mirror

Automatic, adjustable seats

Selectable suspension

Trip computers

Turbo charger/super charger

Navigation system


Convertible top

Practicality Wins Out
Most important featuresfor next new car




Inside comfort



Engine type

Fuel efficiency



Cargo space

Fit & finish

Climate control

Sound system

Technology Makes Driving Safer
Technologies for next car

Front driver and passenger airbags

Stiffer vehicle structures

Traction control

Computer interlocks to prevent operation by drunk drivers

Collision avoidance systems

Side impact air bags

Greater vehicle weight

Vehicle radar

Emergency transponders

Adaptive cruise control

"Black box" drive-data recorders

What Makes Cars Safe

Large size/weight

Design/structure/ engineering/well-built

Safety features (non-specific)

Crash tests


Air bags


Ratings/reports/ independent testing

Driver's knowledge

Good handling



Full chassis

High-tech engine/ engine performance

Top Cars According to Price

Under $15,000

$15,000 - $25,000

Over $25,000

Luxury car

under $45,000

Best overall value:

Cost Challenges Detroit
Most importantengineering hurdles

Reducing vehicle manufacturing cost

Environmental regulations

Alternate fuel

Fuel economy



Preferred Engine Type for Next Car



24-Valve V-6

32-Valve V-8

16-Valve, in-line 4

In-line 4


Best Economy Cars

Saturn (non-specific)

Dodge Neon

Chevrolet Cavalier

Ford Escort

Honda Civic

Toyota Corolla

Ford Taurus/Taurus SHO

Toyota (non-specific)

Honda (non-specific)

Toyota Tercel

Best Mid-Ranged Cars

FordTaurus/Taurus SHO

Toyota Camry

Pontiac Grand Prix

Honda Accord

Toyota (non-specific)

Honda (non-specific)

Chevrolet Camaro

Buick (non-specific)

Best Higher Priced Cars

Lexus (non-specific)

Mercedes-Benz (non-specific)

Cadillac (non-specific)

Chevrolet Corvette

Lincoln Town Car

Chevrolet Suburban

BMW (non-specific)

Lexus LS400

Cadillac Seville/STS

Lincoln (non-specific)

Volvo (non-specific)

Best Luxury Cars

Cadillac (non-specific)

Lexus (non-specific)

BMW (non-specific)

BMW 5-series

Mercedes-Benz (non-specific)

Cadillac Seville/STS

Lincoln Town Car

Lincoln (non-specific)

Cadillac Deville

Lincoln Mark VIII

Buick Park Avenue

Oldsmobile Aurora

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like