Consumers like hybrids, balk at price

Almost three-quarters of U.S. consumers are interested in hybrid technology for their next vehicle, but the added cost seems too high for many, a study has found.

In J.D. Power and Associates' 2008 U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies Study, 72 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in the technology before they learned how much it costs, making it fifth among the technologies ranked.

But when they were told about the $5,000 price premium, that number dropped to 46 percent, and the technology fell to eighth place.

The annual survey, involving more than 19,000 U.S. consumers, showed that Americans continue to be most interested in such optional safety technologies as blind-spot detection, backup assistance and active-cornering headlights.

But entertainment and information features are gaining ground. Mike Marshall, the study's director, said the main reason is that young buyers are entering the market.

"Up until last year, safety features dominated," he said. "There is a general difference in terms of what the young consumers — say, 30 and down — what they've been exposed to, what they expect."

Marshall also pointed to a quicker inclusion of advanced features in low-priced vehicles. "The rate at which they're brought down-segment is much, much quicker," he said.

Driving demand

That hints at another trend: Interest in many technologies is driven in part by availability. Clean diesels, for example, received little interest. Marshall thinks that's largely because the technology isn't widely available in the United States, and Americans know little about its benefits.

"There's a good chunk of the car-buying population that has these latent misconceptions about what diesel is," he said. "There are these thoughts of diesel being dirty, diesel being noisy."

Marshall said he expects that perception to change this year as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz start selling clean diesel systems in the United States.

Said Marshall: "The mere fact that they'll be in the marketplace is going to raise the awareness level of clean diesel, and I think that will begin to crack some of these wrong perceptions of what diesel is today."

$500 is key price point

The study found a few key price points at which consumer interest changes. When the average price of a feature is revealed to be below $500, it usually rises on the list relative to other technologies.

Wireless connectivity, for example, jumps from 16th place to third after its $200 average price is revealed.

Features priced from $500 to $1,000 tended to hold their place on the list when their prices were revealed, while those priced above $1,000 tended to sink.

Other technologies, such as backup assist, have risen. One of the perennial top-ranked features, run-flat tires, wasn't included in the survey this year. This was the first time in the past four years that hybrid powertrains and clean diesel were included in the full survey.

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