What do people really think about cars? Is what comes out of their mouths the same thing that’s in their hearts? In my experience, no, and I’ll cite what I know about SUVs to make my point.

The madness seems to be abating now, but SUV fever had a grip on the country for quite a while. Asked why they bought a huge, lumbering tank to get the groceries and take two kids to school, people invariably said, “I like to sit up high” or “I have two dogs.” Asked why they didn’t just buy a minivan instead, SUV buyers wrinkled their noses and said something about not wanting to be seen as a “soccer mom,” though the problem with these civic-minded souls has always escaped me.

In reality, a minivan would suit most of the needs of most people with kids much better, but (despite everybody having them) SUVs somehow projected an iconoclastic, freedom-loving image. Even if they didn’t go off road, it was somehow reassuring that they could. Tom Taira, a former marketing guy and product planner on the giant Toyota Sequoia, told me, “People had the mindset that bigger is better, and they thought they needed a giant armored something to get around — even though they never went off road or really needed the ability to carry stuff. But buying a minivan is crossing a chasm.”

Taira doesn’t market Sequoias anymore. He is, in fact, the co-founder and CEO of Honk.com, which combines car buying with social networking. The idea is to share public opinion, not just the professional viewpoints guys like me sling around. “When people buy cars, they spend a lot of time — maybe 20 hours — researching the market. They become mini-experts in their own right,” he said.

On Honk, they can share their expertise with peers. I still have to ask if they’ll tell the unvarnished truth, or offer the same kinds of received opinion that characterized discourse about SUVs. Are people honest online?

The analogy Taira makes is between Travelocity, which sells you tickets, and Trip Advisor, which offers real people’s stories about actually traveling and staying in places. The site has applications for Facebook and MySpace, and on the former you can tell your auto history on “Cars I’ve Owned.”

At the popular auto sites, Taira said, it might be a sports car guy who got stuck writing the family sedan review. He’s not into it and he doesn’t relate to the car’s customers. Honk.com is trying to aggregate the unfiltered emotional reactions of real people to the cars they’re seeing in the marketplace, and making them available to others. That and making a buck — it’s a for-profit site that sells both advertising and market data.

Users can enter their hobbies and interests, and then narrow their search criteria to include only eco-cars or station wagons. And they can post as many opinions as they’d like. Honk’s “social recommendation engine” is designed to help people find cars based on “who they are as an individual,” not just on body type and price.

I looked up the Honda Fit, which I happen to own, and there was Brian Takita, who rode in one and liked it. Asked how he’d improve the Fit, he said, “Better gas mileage. For such a small car, I would expect much better gas mileage. The engine is also small and not very powerful. I agree with Mikey’s review, about it needing a Hybrid model.” Sorry I missed Mikey’s review, because, ahem, in my professional opinion, he’s right — a hybrid Fit would be pretty cool. It’s long rumored, too.

Robert Ford “loves curves,” which may be why he is unsure about his friend’s Volkswagen Jetta wagon. “In my mind,” he says, “this is the basic wagon. It has some very nice features, interior materials and interior volume compared to relative body size, but there is nothing that makes me say, ‘Holy cow dude, you got a Jetta!’ Maybe if I owned one I would feel differently, and I have considered it in the past, but for now I just think they are pretty neat.”

These unfiltered opinions are indeed interesting, and probably useful to auto companies that don’t get a lot of useful data. They send out surveys that don’t yield much information.

Honk.com “is a destination,” Taira said. We’ll see about that. Every start-up guy wants his website to be a destination. I did go there, but what do I know—I’m one of those paid hacks Taira was talking about.

It's well-known that more and more people are shopping for cars online, and this video talks about where they're going to get their information:

 
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