photo courtesy GM

Americans are keeping their cars for an average of six years, according to data from R.L. Polk and Company. That's the longest ownership period ever tracked by Polk, and it's part of a decade-long trend of Americans owning one car for a longer period of time. While Polk says there are lots of reasons why people are owning their cars longer, including longer finance terms and the recession, keeping a car for a long period of time means that when it's time to buy a new car, Americans are behaving differently.

Automotive News reports that the longer people keep cars, the less brand loyalty they exhibit. Brad Smith, director of Polk's loyalty management practice, told Automotive News that when someone has owned a car for several years and they go to buy a new one, they tend to behave like a first-time buyer. Automotive News reports that "dealers and analysts say they have seen more consumers willing to cross-shop domestic and import brands recently, particularly after last year's earthquake in Japan caused vehicle shortages at many U.S. dealerships."

The changing landscape means that many carmakers are seeing opportunities to poach buyers from other brands. Reuters reports that General Motors is launching initiatives to increase customer loyalty and bring in new buyers. "With more than 70 percent of its U.S. product lineup being redesigned or refreshed this year and in 2013, GM executives see an opportunity to change how consumers view the Detroit automaker, which filed for bankruptcy and received a $50 billion bailout package from the U.S. Treasury in 2009," Reuters writes. While new models may bring in new buyers, Reuters says GM is renovating dealerships, increasing customer service staff and staying on top of complaints in social media to improve the ownership experience and make GM owners more likely to consider a GM car, truck or SUV when it's time to buy again.

If you're in the market for a new car, especially if you haven't shopped in a while, take the time to familiarize yourself with what's on the market. Not only has the brand landscaped changed, but the models and features that are available, and what cars reviewers like have changed drastically in just the last few years. For example, in the midsize car class, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord dominated our midsize car rankings from 2007 to 2010. Now, the top five cars in the class include the Accord, but also the Ford Fusion, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Suzuki Kizashi and the Toyota Prius. While the Honda Fit has held a top spot in our small car rankings since they launched in 2007, it's now joined by the Ford Fiesta, Mazda3, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, with the Chevrolet Cruze just out of the top five.

In the past few years, domestic automakers have turned their focus away from SUVs and trucks and back toward making competitive cars. At the same time, brands like Hyundai and Kia have made strides in quality, design and the features they offer. All told, buyers who have been out of the market for five or six years will find that there are more good cars to choose from than when they left.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars. Then, look for a great deal on a new car by checking out this month’s best car deals. You can also find the best local prices in the area by using our Best Price Program. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.