Fuel economy is car buyers' top priority. With a catch.

Fuel economy is a chief concern for 15 percent of car buyers, outranking styling, reliability, and cost. But not by much. 

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
The Ford Focus Electric car is displayed next to a home charging station at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, Nov. 29, 2012. Fuel economy ranks as car buyers' top priority, but not by much.

There's good news and bad news for green car fans in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Avoider Study.

For a decade, that study has interviewed recent car buyers, asking detailed questions about their purchase decisions. As you might guess from the title of the survey, Power focuses not only on positive factors that drew customers to particular makes and models, but also on the negative ones that caused shoppers to turn their backs.

After speaking with approximately 31,000 individuals who registered new vehicles in May 2012, Power unearthed some interesting data. 

The good news is that fuel economy remains a major consideration for new-car shoppers -- in fact, it's more important than any other criteria.

The bad news is that fuel economy has a lot of competition for that honor. In all, just 15% of those surveyed said that fuel economy was their #1 criteria in choosing a new car, but as low as that figure sounds, it still outranked styling, reliability, and cost. In other words: fuel economy is leading the pack, but not by much.

As a result, many of those competing factors can keep shoppers away from cars -- even cars with excellent fuel economy. A third of those surveyed said that they had avoided a particular car because they didn't like its exterior styling, while 19% said that interior styling could have a similarly chilling effect. And 17% of respondents said that they'd avoided a vehicle because of the image it conveys. That might mean that they'd passed up a large SUV because it appeared wasteful and excessive, or it could mean they dodged a Toyota Prius because it seemed too smugly eco-friendly.

As far as hybrids and electric cars are concerned, pricing seems to be the biggest hurdle facing automakers. A whopping 36% of consumers avoided such vehicles because of their sticker prices.

Car companies could stand to work on the styling of their fuel-sipping models, too. Of those Power surveyed, 25% said that they'd avoided a hybrid or electric car because they didn't like its looks. 

Not surprisingly, those who do buy hybrids and EVs do so because they prioritize fuel economy and, to a lesser degree, eco-friendliness. Among respondents who'd purchased such vehicles, 95% cited gas mileage as a major factor in their purchase decision, and 62% added that the vehicle's reduced environmental impact was also important.

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