Adding fuel to fire

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How to have conversations with customers about fuel efficiency

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This statement from The Telegraph, a major U.K. newspaper, caught my attention recently: “Is there a car buyer left in the country who believes the official fuel economy numbers?”

It’s a question that could apply to any developed automotive market. For the past four or five years, at least six major manufacturers have been the focus of high profile investigations or actions over exaggerated fuel efficiency.

The VW diesel issue has gained most attention, but numerous others including Mitsubishi, Hyundai/Kia, GM and Ford have been the targets of investigations and scrutiny.

This doesn’t do much to enhance the reputation of the industry and detracts from the remarkable advances the industry has made in safety, quality, technology and fuel efficiency.

Are the numbers accurate?

As suggested by the statement from The Telegraph, however, there is probably not a great deal of credibility in those numbers.

Granted, progress has been made in making official fuel consumption numbers in Canada better reflect the driving experience of the average owner.

The recent change from the 2-cycle to the 5-cycle test approach is progress, but it still doesn’t reflect realistic driving situations perfectly. There are also some conspicuous gaps in the information where some popular models are missing.

In France, PSA Peugeot-Citroen is now publishing “real-world” fuel consumption numbers for 30 of their models.

The measurements were made on public roads open to traffic, with specified segments in urban areas, rural areas, and on motorways, with passengers and luggage on board.

The carmaker used a portable emissions measurement system that is identical to those which will be used in the upcoming Real Driving Emissions tests in EU countries. The news was both good and bad.

The good news was that there were lots of positive comments from consumers on the web. Their willingness to be transparent was seen as a major step forward, even if there was still some skepticism about the numbers.

The bad news was that most models tested dropped significantly, with the worst being a 56 per cent deterioration (difference) in measured fuel efficiency.

This may signal the direction for North America in the future. While gasoline and hybrid technologies evolve and as electric vehicles become more common, this will all keep the efficiency story on the front page.

Do car buyers care?

In its long established New Vehicle Customer Study, MaritzCX asks new vehicle buyers in Canada two questions:

What is important in driving their purchase decision?

What were the key reasons for their specific choice of vehicle?

It’s also interesting to look at the data in parallel with the average price of a litre of regular gas in Canada.

Consistently, between 40 and 50 per cent of Canadian car buyers rate Fuel Efficiency as “Extremely Important” in their purchase decision.

When you add those who said “Very Important,” you’re looking at almost 80 per cent. There is some evidence that gas prices influence buyer motivations, so fuel efficiency is clearly a key driver.

The other question in the study asks what the most important factors were that led to the selection of a specific model. Fuel efficiency is in the top three reasons for between a quarter and a fifth of car buyers.

Shawn St. Clair, Global Syndication Director at MaritzCX, said, “These results make it clear that fuel prices continue to impact drivers and influence future purchase decisions, even as fuel prices fall. However, seeking relief at the pump may not be the only reason; more and more consumers have a desire to be more environmentally friendly.”

Not all buyers are the same

What’s interesting is how male and female car buyers differ in how they look at fuel efficiency in their decision-making. To make a fair and valid comparison, you need to look at the differences within specific vehicle segments, or you could draw the wrong conclusions.

Female buyers in the three segments consistently place more importance on fuel efficiency than do males when asked to rate the importance of different factors in their purchase decision.

But when it comes to the reason why they chose a specific model, there is little difference between males and females, with male compact car buyers being slightly more likely to mention fuel efficiency.

What we’re seeing is that, while fuel efficiency not at the top of the list of purchase motivators, it is still important and is likely to remain so well into the future.

Most buyers will have looked at fuel efficiency numbers in their shopping process or will have seen the official numbers on stickers in the showroom. There is likely some healthy skepticism about fuel efficiency numbers provided by manufacturers.

The discussion about fuel efficiency is an important one to have in the sales process, but it needs to be relevant to the particular customer. The way the discussion is handled could make a difference in the customer’s decision.

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