Don’t trust those who fill out surveys

You are not to be trusted. OK, you might actually be dependable, but, hey, what about your next-door neighbour, the one who borrowed your weed wacker last fall and still hasn’t returned it? Wait a minute, what’s that your wife’s saying? Your neighbour returned it a long time ago and her brother has it now. All right, then, so brothers-in-law can’t be trusted, but we already knew that, didn’t we?

However, as far as I am concerned, the least trustworthy people on the planet are those who fill out surveys.

Whether it be an online questionnaire or a focus group, people are all too often swayed by what they think they should say or how they want to be perceived, so that it remains highly unlikely whatever comes out of their mouths bear even the slightest resemblance to the truth. Hell, if you put me in a room with a bunch of pretty women wearing tight-fitting Greenpeace T-shirts, I’ll swear to wanting to save the seals and admit to an unremitting desire to own a Nissan Leaf.

Case in point: Consumer Reports just announced in its January 2010 issue that the car that “most satisfied” its new owners was – wait for it – the Dodge Challenger. That means they are satisfied with a car with less power than Chevy’s new Camaro – its most direct competitor – weighs more, handles worse and, probably its greatest sin, has an interior almost identical to Chrysler’s 300, on which the Challenger is based.

Oh, sure, it’s pretty, but so was Elizabeth Taylor in her youth and I don’t remember any of her husbands re-upping for a second stint (as 92% of Challengers owners claim they would do). Oh, wait a minute, Richard Burton did marry Taylor twice, which only goes to show that car ownership is just as fickle and illogical as marriage.

It’s not hard to figure out what happened. Anyone fanatical enough to buy a car simply because it looks like the car he or she lusted after when they were 19 is unlikely to care – or, even more unlikely, admit – the retro-pony car they’ve dreamed about for so long is more California cruiser than lithe muscle car. They bought a dream not a car, and reality is just not going to intrude into their fantasies.

The same can be said of Consumer Reports‘ previous winner of this tired accolade, the evergreen “green” Prius. It takes a certain mindset to buy the Prius, one that breeds a certain holier than thou “look at me saving the environment” mentality. That they paid several thousand more dollars for a complicated technology that really works only if they completely alter their driving habits only makes them all the more self-righteous. And the self-righteous are unlikely to complain about that which gives their delusions meaning.

Indeed, not even delusion could keep the Prius near the top of the pile this year, the Toyota not even being the top-ranked hybrid on the “Most Satisfying Family Cars” list. That honour falls to the new Fusion Hybrid, which placed second behind the decaled Dodge – the Fusion’s elevation the one illuminating conclusion in this study.

To be completely frank, I don’t trust survey-generated reliability and initial quality statistics either, particularly those that are owner-reported (as opposed to warranty and repair bill-based). A few years back, a J.D. Power study rated the Hummer as having the most “problems” of all new cars purchased. Upon more detailed inspection, however, it turned out nearly every one of said unhappy Hummer owners rated its fuel mileage as “problematic.” Can one really trust the opinion of someone who would buy a Hummer and then have the temerity to complain about its fuel economy?

Besides, many studies show people’s impressions are invariably tainted by their initial perceptions. There’s no question, for instance, that consumers’ rating of domestic-car reliability dramatically lagged behind their actual quality improvements. Prejudices die hard, it seems, even when you’re driving the evidence.

The bottom line is that with so much perception being tainted by initial expectations, it’s difficult to fully trust these owner-reported ratings.

Indeed, judging from the list of Consumer Reports‘ most satisfying cars (which also includes the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette – good cars both, but with owners who are usually unabashedly fanatical), anticipation of performance is a far more dominant factor in their owners’ minds than actual performance. Challenger owners are so satisfied because they want to be satisfied. That their car neither performs nor handles exceptionally well is certainly not going to get in the way of their giddiness. Whether you want to take their advice is another question entirely.

Photograph by : Ward Perrin / Vancouver Sun