Engineer vs. Consumer: The Importance of Attribute Performance

Why does one person buy a VW, another buy a Ford, and a third buy a Honda? Is it because of how it drives? How it sounds? How it feels? Or does it just come down to being the right price and looking good?

The effort of engineers

A few years ago, I was taking part in a drive event benchmarking current vehicles and the key competitors as identified by Engineering and Marketing.

The selection covered many of the most popular cars in Europe by sales: the Ford Fiesta, VW Polo, Fiat 500, Peugeot 208.

It also brought in the new challengers from Korea: the Kia Rio and the Hyundai i20.

The task at hand was to assess the performance of the powertrain, focusing on Noise, Vibration and Harshness (commonly referred to as NVH). The participants were tasked with rating each car subjectively for rattles, whines, quirks of calibration (engine flares when depressing the clutch) amongst other things. One day was spent performing this exercise, before installing measurement equipment and performing objective tests over the rest of the week.

16 engineers, 10 cars, 1 week, assessing if there is a low-frequency rattle, at idle drive in 2nd, on a perfectly smooth road, with all consumers (A/C, lights, etc.) off, and how much better or worse than the other cars on test.

This is an example of the level of detail that OEMs go to just to establish the competitive set for a new vehicle/transmission/engine prior to testing & development over the next 2 or more years.

Similar exercises are followed for every attribute such as shift quality, vehicle dynamics, driveability and many more, all in the pursuit of delivering the best possible vehicle to the public despite the continuous pressure to come in under budget to eke out a slim profit margin.

Engineering is a single-minded profession, where “it doesn’t feel right” is translated into a selection of tests, requirements and metrics that become gospel to the engineers within that speciality.

There is a constant desire to improve upon what came before, no matter what the company or the price point of the vehicle. Others become the gatekeepers who give guidance on what can and can’t be done based upon the two critical parameters of cost and timing.

But ultimately, does it matter to the customer? There is no clear answer but many factors which can affect the customer’s experience

The weight of expectation

The expectations of a customer are often driven by their previous vehicle, recommendations and reviews from friends, magazines and car shows on TV (or your preferred streaming service), and their level of driving experience. It can be biased by their brand preference or loyalty, and even by the cost of the car. You can forgive the harsh ride of a Ford Focus RS because of the hype that surrounded it, the relatively poor build quality of a Fiat 500 because you love the way it looks, or the poor shift refinement of a Dodge Challenger because you live for that V8 rumble.

Do you care about shift quality as much as I do?

The buying habits of customers are also very different from the experience of an engineer.

Most people change their car every 3-5 years, or maybe even more rarely. Often they will have limited experience in other cars except as a passenger. To try a selection of vehicles, you most likely test them in sequence, broken up by driving your own car between dealers.

As an engineer, you have the opportunity to drive several competing vehicles back-to-back as many times as needed. It is an eye-opening experience to drive cars in a vehicle plant – in high enough volume, you become aware of subtle differences from one car to the next. This can be unnerving to the engineer who has strived to deliver the ideal performance of a vehicle but is surely expected based on the complexity and interaction of all the systems that make up a car.

So the engineer strives to deliver perfection at a given price. As the cost of a vehicle goes up, the engineer seeks to push the performance to an even higher level.

But in the end, does it matter?

When aiming to please the entire car-buying public, how can you say when it is enough? You will always alienate some customers when a change is made. However, these days the quality of cars available to purchase is broadly at a similar level, whereas in years gone by there were clear examples of outright good and bad vehicles with good and bad attribute performance.

Poor attribute performance happens, but it’s rare, and usually fixed with calibration these days

So, what makes you choose your car? Does the NVH, Ride & Handling, Performance Feel and other attributes matter to you? Or is styling the key to modern cars? The existence of performance cars even at the attainable price points (Ford Performance, Hyundai N, Toyota GR) suggests there is a place in the market for it.

How much better would your potential daily driver have to be to tear you away from the brand you’ve always bought? Or are there more important things you would like to see in cars?

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