Study: 76% of Americans favor appearance over reliability in a new car

woman talking with car salesman as she gets into the driver seat

No matter if we’re driving a sleek sports car or a no-frills sedan, our vehicles typically serve a common function: to get from point A to point B.

In that case, what difference does appearance make to drivers? We set out to find out exactly how important looks are to car shoppers and which factor was more important to drivers – appearance or reliability.

Would Americans buy a reliable car, even if they didn’t like its appearance?

We conducted a study of 1,000 drivers to see if they would buy a reliable vehicle, even if they didn’t like the way it looked. Surprisingly, we found that a majority of American drivers wouldn’t even consider purchasing a reliable car if they didn’t like its aesthetic.

Though we found that most drivers would not buy a reliable car if they didn’t like its appearance, we noted several related data points.

Both men and women would not buy a reliable car if they did not like its appearance. However, a higher percentage of women said they would not consider the purchase: 80 percent of women — and only 73 percent of men — said they would not buy a reliable-but-unappealing car. This, despite the survey group containing 25 percent more men than women.  

Women value car appearanceAge also influenced how drivers answered this question. Older drivers — starting at age 45 — were most likely to say they would not buy a car if they did not like its appearance, regardless of reliability. A pattern emerged here: on average, the older the driver, the more likely the respondent is to report that they would not consider the purchase. This could be a result of older drivers having more available funds to spend on a new car. These older drivers might have the means to ensure a car checks all the boxes, appearance included.

The youngest drivers surveyed — aged 18 to 24 — were more likely to discount vehicle appearance when choosing a car. Only 68 percent of young drivers indicated they would hesitate to purchase a reliable-but-unattractive car (compared to 81 percent for drivers aged 65 and up). Because drivers in this age group could have less disposable income, they might value reliability above appearance.

Older drivers value appearance

What feature is most essential to Americans when buying a car?

According to a past study by J.D. Power, appearance is the number one determinant in whether potential car buyers avoid a particular brand or not. Though reliability is becoming increasingly more important, exterior and interior styling were still the most important features for consumers in choosing which car brand to buy.

We tried to learn which styling features were most important to consumers. We asked 5,000 respondents on a state-by-state level to rank these features from most to least important: backup camera, blind spot monitoring, Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats, keyless entry and voice control.

Respondents spoke loud and clear, with 27 percent of drivers indicating a backup camera was the most essential feature when buying a car.

This isn’t surprising. A recent study by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found backup cameras drastically reduced the possibility of backover accidents into pedestrians. David Zuby, the Institute’s vice president and Chief Research Officer, said backup cameras are “the most promising technology” for reducing the number of these accidents, which often involve small children in the driveways of their own homes.

Regionally, Midwestern states showed the strongest preference for this feature, with 83 percent of drivers in the region choosing a backup camera first over other options.

Which feature did drivers think was second-most important? 40 percent of states said keyless entry was the second most important feature. Keyless entry offers extra layers of security, automatic locking functions, and hands-free operation. No wonder it’s drivers’ second choice among essential features!

map showing what the most essential car feature per state is

The Northeast, however, had different preferences. At the beginning of 2018, the region faced blizzards and some of its coldest recorded temperatures. In fact, on January 6th, Mount Washington (New Hampshire) tied with Armstrong, Ontario for the second coldest place in the world on that day: -93F. With most of the region in a deep freeze during winter months, drivers say having heated seats is a must in a new car. As a result, this feature was the most popular second-choice answer for drivers in the Northeast. In fact, this feature was a strong contender for second place in many of the northern states!

Looks really are everything when it comes to buying a new car, according to most American drivers. From our study, we found that a majority of drivers would not consider buying a car if they didn’t like its appearance, regardless of reliability. We also found most American drivers believed a backup camera was the most essential item to look for when shopping for new cars.

Regardless of which new car you choose, it’s important to stay safe while driving. Practicing safe driving habits and having good auto insurance can help you get the most from your new car, whether or not it has all the latest bells and whistles.


J.D. Power | IIHS | Independent