Can consumer knowledge of new product cycles impact sales?

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DETROIT -- Auto industry innovation has accelerated so much in the past three years that for consumers, buying a vehicle feels much like buying a computer did a decade ago, or like buying a smartphone does today.

But does having knowledge of upcoming product affect purchasing decisions?

Consumers know that whatever vehicle they choose likely will be replaced by something newer and better well before they’ve finished paying for it. That leaves a familiar conundrum: Do they buy the right vehicle, or the right vehicle now?

Take fuel economy, for example. As the industry works toward meeting ever-stricter fuel economy standards, it stands to reason that whatever vehicle a consumer chooses will get better fuel economy in later model years.

New engines and transmissions, lighter vehicles and even new fuel sources are likely to mean buying now will result in paying more to drive. But that has to be balanced against the knowledge that those advancements probably will raise vehicle prices even as those vehicles cost less to operate.

The same question hangs over most vehicles’ onboard infotainment systems. What is on the market right now from some automakers certainly fits consumers’ current needs, but how will consumers’ desires change with each advancement of the smartphone? And will the car they buy today even be able to interact with tomorrow’s hand-held electronic device?

The industry has been on an unqualified sales run since the troubles of 2008 and 2009, and that period’s near-death experiences have motivated automakers to reinvest in their products.

The question left for dealers and their sales forces is this: How do you persuade consumers to part with their money now, when something better lies at every mile marker down the road?

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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