Quality, reliability and interior comfort continue to rank as top purchase considerations for U.S. car buyers, but new technologies such as infotainment is rapidly influencing how those attributes are perceived, experts say.

“Quality is no longer a way to differentiate. It is a given,” says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director-global automotive at J.D. Power & Associates. “Now other factors are starting to take hold.”

VanNieuwkuyk says today’s consumers increasingly determine vehicle quality by how well an auto maker delivers the content they desire, especially connectivity. So far, not so good, he says, citing poor scores for multimedia systems in the consultancy’s annual satisfaction study.

“These systems are highly complex, giving consumers a chance to say something isn’t quite right,” he tells WardsAuto. “They say to themselves, ‘If a phone can do it, why can’t my car do it?’”

The dilemma finds its roots in a consumer that today is more connected than ever, but not necessarily on a one-to-one basis. They connect through social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, usually juggling multiple points simultaneously, and auto makers’ interiors must accommodate those habits.

“These are smart people,” VanNieuwkuyk adds. “They are multi-taskers. It is how they exist.”

Frank Hirschenberger, senior director-product innovation at connected-vehicles expert Agero, says Americans are “crazy about connectivity” and that sentiment does not change when they enter a vehicle. Nor do their preferences for how their content is delivered, and it is critical auto makers deliver a solution that will last the lifetime of the vehicle.

“Frustrating and distracting (technology) will not make it in this industry,” he says.

VanNieuwkuyk suggests regularly updating software, not unlike what is done with smartphones, to keep vehicle technology current.

“One big dissatisfaction with navigation systems is by the time the owners get to use it in their car it is old,” he observes. “The vehicle has to do the same thing a smartphone does, create an up-to-date environment.”

Joni Christensen, head of marketing-UConnect at Chrysler, suggests auto makers focus on the driver, not the hardware.

“It’s not just about connecting the car,” she says. “It’s not about connecting seven devices, it’s about connecting the driver. If everything is wirelessly synced and connected, then you are delivering a better experience to the driver.”

Christensen says Chrysler’s UConnect system has succeeded because of the cross-functional approach to its initial development, which drew input from design, engineering and marketing.

Agero’s Hirschenberger also dispels notions young people aged 18-34 are disinterested in automobiles. Agero research shows them to be as emotionally attached to their vehicles as their smartphones, and auto makers are tasked with safely combining the two.

Newly released distracted-driving guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., which complement auto makers’ self-imposed connectivity safety standards and are meant to curtail smartphone use while behind the wheel, will not impede the introduction of new technology, Hirschenberger says.

“(NHTSA) is trying to do the right thing and make the right decisions to make vehicles safer,” he says. “We have a lot of confidence in (NHTSA) and don’t expect it to slow us down.”

Consumers will adapt to regulation anyway, VanNieuwkuyk says. “They are resilient and reasonable enough to say, ‘O.K., we can’t do this. What can we do?’ So they are going to look for those solutions and embrace them and work within those confines.”

VanNieuwkuyk points to the development of technology that would send an instant message notifying the sender of a text that their contact is behind the wheel and will catch up later.

jamend@wardsauto.com