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J.D. Power Study: Americans Guzzling Less, Enjoying it More

So far, American car buyers seem happy with the ongoing switch to smaller cars with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines, according to a recent study by J.D. Power and Associates.

That's not a given, considering the nation's obvious preference for big trucks with big engines, until fuel prices started climbing in 2004.

After being punished by high fuel prices, it's ironic that today, lower fuel prices represent a potential risk factor for the auto industry. That's because the car companies are investing so much in smaller cars with smaller engines, even though short-term, consumers are less worried about gas prices.

According to J.D. Power, the average score in the 2009 APEAL study improved to 779 on a 1,000-point scale, from 770 in 2008. The biggest change was increased owner satisfaction with fuel economy, the firm said.

APEAL stands for Automotive Performance Execution and Layout. Survey respondents rate the new vehicle they just bought, within 90 days after purchase or lease. The 2009 APEAL Study, which was released last week, is based on responses from more than 80,900 respondents.

The better-known J.D. Power Initial Quality Study compiles "things gone wrong" in the first 90 days of ownership. APEAL measures "things gone right." It's possible to do poorly in IQS and still do well in APEAL. Mini and Land Rover customers, for instance, seem to like their vehicles in terms of APEAL, even if they don't score well on IQS.

Higher satisfaction with fuel economy in this year's APEAL study comes from three main sources, according to David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates.

First, fuel prices are lower than a year ago, which means owners are less concerned about gas mileage, Sargent said. Second, many owners switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles. In 2009, more than half of the vehicles included in the study had four-cylinder engines, up from 39 percent in the 2008 survey. Third, automakers are designing new models to be more fuel efficient than their predecessors, he said.

For instance, he said the newest versions of the Ford F-150 pickup, the Cadillac Escalade SUV, the Volkswagen Jetta passenger car and the Dodge Ram pickup are all more fuel-efficient than the models they replaced.

Chart: J.D. Power and Associates