Getting Value for your Automotive Dollar

Whether you pay a lot or a little, you can still have a satisfying vehicle ownership experience. That is a key lesson to be learned from a recent study conducted by San Diego-based Strategic Vision. According to the research firm, value is not just a series of economic analyses but is also in the eye of the beholder, and value is something Strategic Vision tries to isolate in its Total Value Index (TVI). Long-term economic benefits plus strong quality in the overall ownership experience equate to overall value. The good news is, whether you are ready to pay luxury car prices or must be content with an economy-car budget, you can find vehicle satisfaction.

In examining the findings, one key result seems obvious, while another is a surprise. Few would be shocked to learn that Toyota's Lexus luxury brand copped the top spot as the Top Value brand overall (with a score of 752.) Many, however, would express some surprise that the number two brand wasn't Infiniti or Saturn or Acura, but instead was Korean carmaker Hyundai (at 747.)

"Hyundai can now legitimately tout its value," said Daniel Gorrell, Strategic Vision automotive vice president, "with a strong ownership experience offered at a great price and with a great warranty."

Fellow Korean automaker Kia, which added a similar 10-year warranty of its own in mid-2000, was the most improved brand in the survey. Among manufacturers, Toyota was the big winner with six of its vehicles (one in a tie), leading their segments. Toyota dominated the truck categories, especially the large SUV and compact and full-size pick-up categories, long the domain of the domestic manufacturers. For the Toyota Sequoia, Tacoma and Tundra, durability, perceived future trade-in value and reliability were well above the segment average. In addition the Toyota 4Runner tied for top honors in the mid-size SUV category, and the Lexus RX 300 won top honors in the luxury SUV segment. Also of note was the strong showing of the Prius, Toyota's electric/gasoline hybrid. Buyers gave it high scores for warranty, technological innovations, fuel economy and economical ownership.

"The rest of the story is the satisfaction owners feel in driving an ecologically friendly vehicle that gets good gas mileage without compromising convenience or performance," Gorrell said.

Strategic Vision calculates TVI by assessing both short-term economic issues (value for the money, affordability, price/deal offered, technological innovations and standard equipment level) and long-term issues (durability, future trade-in, warranty, mileage, economical to own and reliability). These factor scores are then added to numbers measuring the total perceived ownership experience. More than 81,000 buyers rated the vehicles after 90 days of ownership.

"You have to look at the quality of the overall ownership experience when you measure value," said Gorrell. "Price alone tells you little. Instead, you have to look at what people get for the money. Luxury vehicles, for example, score well in Total Value because of high resale values."

The following are Strategic Vision's picks as the best values in their individual segments, with their scores:

Small CarToyota Prius778
Compact CarSaturn LS Sedan/Volkswagen Jetta (tie)751
Mid-Size CarInfiniti G20780
Larger CarChrysler LHS693
Small SpecialtyVolkswagen New Beetle782
Mid-Specialty CarHonda Accord Coupe748
Near-Luxury CarVolvo S60757
Luxury CarMercedes Benz E-Class767
ConvertibleToyota MR2 Spyder761
MinivanHonda Odyssey651
Small SUVHyundai Santa Fe753
Mid-Size SUVLand Rover Discovery II /Toyota 4Runner (tie)665
Large SUVToyota Sequoia698
Luxury SUVLexus RX 300757
Compact PickupToyota Tacoma677
Full-Size PickupToyota Tundra689

A world traveler, Tom Ripley keeps close tabs on the global automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.