Consumers beware: In reality, luxury cars don't make us feel better

July 26, 2011

If you think driving a luxury car like a BMW, Lexus or Cadillac makes you feel better -- think again, says a University of Michigan researcher.

"Almost everyone assumes that a luxury car is more enjoyable than driving an economy car, but the reality is more complicated," said Norbert Schwarz, professor of marketing at Michigan's Ross School of Business. "When drivers focus on their car while driving, a luxury car is indeed more fun than an economy car. But most of the time, the driver's mind is preoccupied with the mundane issues of daily life and the car makes little difference."

In a new study published in the current issue of the Journal of , Schwarz and colleague Jing Xu of Peking University explore why it is difficult for consumers to learn from their own consumption experiences. Why is it that drivers of luxury cars believe that their car is a major source of joy even though most of the time they would feel just as well in an economy car?

To illustrate, Schwarz and Xu asked U-M students how intensely they would feel each of 10 positive or while driving a BMW, a Honda Accord or a Ford Escort. Consistent with widely shared intuitions, the students expected the intensity of their to increase with the value of the car, relying on general knowledge of what it must feel like to drive a luxury car.

Next, the researchers asked other survey respondents (not students) what kind of car they drive and how they usually feel while driving it. Similar to the students, these drivers reported more positive emotions the more valuable their car was. The students' hedonic predictions appeared right on target, although many had never driven the cars they made predictions about.

However, other survey respondents were asked to recall their most recent commute to work or the last time they drove their cars for at least 20 minutes, regardless of the nature of the trip. They were then asked how they felt while driving during those specific trips. Only at the end of the survey were they asked what kind of car they drive. In this case, the value of the car made no difference in drivers' reports of how they felt.

"In short, the car made a difference when respondents focused on the car, but not otherwise," said Schwarz, who is also a psychology professor and research professor at U-M's Institute for Social Research. "Unfortunately, this is difficult to notice for consumers.

"During the test drive of a new car, our attention is focused on the car, and the more luxurious it is, the better we feel while driving it. This experience is real, visceral and compelling. What we miss, however, is one simple thing—once we have owned the for a few weeks, it no longer captures all of our attention and other things will be on our minds while driving. As soon as that happens, we would feel just as well driving a cheaper alternative."

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1 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2011
So, they are saying that the novelty value of things wears off once you get used to them?

What a truly novel insight. I never would have guessed.

However, a BMW is still a BMW and a Honda Accord is not. One is more pleasant to drive, more powerful and alltogether nicer when you decide to turn your attention back to the car and enjoy it on a weekend drive for instance.

You don't take a ten year old toyota for a sunday drive because it's just a commuter car with nothing interesting in it.
not rated yet Jul 26, 2011
The difference only comes about when the car fails. In that case the sitting in a luxury car is much LESS enjoyable (since you supposedly paid a lot of money for a now - to you and at that moment - worthless piece of junk)

On the other hand: if a luxury car fails much less often than an economy car then that may be a point in its favor. Judging form the statisticst this is only marginally the case (i.e. the maintenance costs for a luxury car - even ignoring regular service and fuel - are by no means less than those of an economy car).
5 / 5 (3) Jul 26, 2011
This study doesn't even mention the role of a car as a social status marker. If peoples' satisfaction solely derived from their internal state, this might be a good point. However, people exist in a socioeconomic framework, and a car as also a symbol. No one ever had their mid-life crisis and bought a geo metro.
not rated yet Jul 26, 2011
You don't take a ten year old toyota for a sunday drive because it's just a commuter car with nothing interesting in it

You never had a Toyota Supra.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2011
I'm sorry, this is really foolish. I bought an Audi six months ago, and I still regularly notice how nice it is to drive, how much nicer it is than my old Dodge Caravan. For that matter, I regularly noticed how much nicer that car was than my first car, a VW Rabbit.

People asked about their most recent commute or their most recent trip focused on the question, and answered in terms of traffic, scenery, or the point of the trip. That hardly suggests that they don't regularly notice the way the steering wheel feels, or appreciate the rain sensing windshield wipers, the great Bluetooth implementation, or the automatic headlights, &c. (Really, I could go on and on, but I don't want to sound like an Audi commercial.)

I bought my car thinking that if I had to spend 8 hrs a week commuting, I might as well enjoy it. And I do.

I rather suspect that neither Schwarz nor Xu drive a nice car, or they'd have known how silly their thesis is.
not rated yet Jul 27, 2011
It's good to know that there's scientific basis on ignoring luxury cars. How long can people realize nothing in cars can get you the happiness Dalai Lama has?

Ri of changerules(dot)net
1 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2011
The best two rides I have ridden in have been the Lexus and the Cadillac. Just my subjective opinion, mind you.

But, the unhappiness came to me when the bills rolled in for repairs when the Cadillac began having problems. The car lasted well over a decade with almost zero problems, even with the recall for the fuel line. It still runs fine but the suspension is going to be an expensive repair.

It may be time for another, but if I am going to go electric or hybrid it will have to do better than 600 miles on a tank of gas/charge, which is what I get with my Cadillac on the highway.

If I could find a cost effective way to power an electric car on nuclear power I would do it in a heartbeat. Too bad the Feds wouldn't be too happy with me if I attempted it. :)
1 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2011
Two things I don't like about BMWs are that, if you park your car for two or more weeks, expect your car battery to need a jump, and the other was the fact that just about the entire interior is plastic. If I want to buy a luxury car I expect not so mnuch plastic. Of course, most car manufacturers have gone to plastic these days so I suppose that will now become a moot point...

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