The most appealing new vehicles to American carbuyers are…

July 24, 2013

For many years, the most-watched measures of how well a vehicle was built involved tracking all the things that could go wrong once that hunk of metal was in your driveway. Yet no one really buys a particular car or truck based on nothing but a quality number; the majority of tire-kickers invest more emotion in their vehicle purchase than they do when buying, say, a new toaster. That's why J.D. Power annually surveys 83,000 new owners about what's gone right with their vehicles — and this year's results show that bigger often equals better.

Many of the results J.D. Power draws from the 2013 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) survey sound like common sense: Carbuyers pay more up front for attractive vehicles, get more back when they sell them used and are more likely to buy from the same brand again. The insight comes from quantifying those attractions in terms carmakers can understand; vehicles with an APEAL score that's at least 100 points above the average for any given segment garner $1,800 more per sale than those whose scores lag the average by a similar amount.

It's no surprise that luxury brands do better than mainstream ones, so much so that J.D. Power separates the two classes. Unsurprisingly, Porsche tops all brands — as it has for the past nine years — as it scored an average of 884 points on a 1,000-point scale. Audi placed second, and BMW, Land Rover and Lexus rounded out the top five. Among non-luxury brands, Chrysler's Ram truck unit surpassed Mini as the most satisfying choice, with Volkswagen coming in second, Mini falling to third, Buick fourth and Kia fifth.

But the study doesn't necessarily match sales because some brands sell more on price and by offering a wider range of models — and some particular models may have strong appeal among a narrow swath of customers. Ford sells more Mustangs every month than it does all Lincolns — yet Lincoln ranks well above industry average between Jaguar and Infiniti, while Ford lost ground in this year's results. Excluding now-shuttered Suzuki, the bottom three brands carried over from the 2012 — Smart, Mitsubishi and Subaru — with Jeep falling to fourth-worst and Toyota fifth, despite strong demand at both brands.

Dave Sergeant, vice president for global automotive at J.D. Power, compares it to the hotel business: "Most people would consider the Ritz Carlton a more appealing experience than the Marriott — but many more people stay at a Marriott."

J.D. Power also ranked the top vehicles in 23 categories, with Volkswagen Group taking five for the Audi Allroad, Porsche Boxster, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen GTI and Volkswagen Passat. And for the first time in the 12 years that J.D. Power has conducted the survey, the top-scoring car among all models wasn't a luxury sedan, but an SUV — namely the Land Rover Range Rover. One of the major differences between the brands on the top of the survey and those at the bottom is how much they rely on SUVs; the Porsche Cayenne outsells the 911, Boxster and Cayman combined on these shores, while for the first time this year Audi's top seller is the Q5 SUV. Like with hotel rooms, more space doesn't always mean more appealing — but most shoppers if given the chance prefer big over small. See the full list of winners in the gallery: