Why No One Quality Report Tells The Whole Story



Quality remains one of the most significant factors for folks buying a new car.

There's no question that fuel economy has become a critical consideration for most folks looking to buy a new car. But quality remains one of the single most significant factors in closing the deal.

Once upon a time, word of mouth was the only way to differentiate between one brand and another, an important yet oftentimes unreliable approach. Then, back in the 1970s, a one-time Ford analyst by the name of J. David Power revolutionized the industry with his first quantitative studies of vehicle quality and reliability. Today, J.D. Power and Associates is the quality field heavyweight, with all sorts of wannabes chasing for a piece of its multi-million-dollar consulting business.

Earlier this month, Power released its 26th annual Initial Quality Study, perhaps the single-most widely quoted survey of its kind, which tallies up the results of a lengthy questionnaire filled out by tens of thousands of recent vehicle buyers. To understand the significance of the IQS, consider that Ford held a separate news conference a day earlier to address the likelihood of its downward slide in the survey. Makers who did well blitzed the media with news releases trumpeting their performance.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.



Be ready to follow up by studying several other key reports from research firms that fill in the rest of the story.

According to the 2012 IQS, Lexus once again came out on top with Porsche and Jaguar close behind. In fact, the British maker surged from 20th to a second-place tie. Ford, as noted, did slip. And Fiat and Smart anchored the bottom of the chart.

So, should a new car shopper be studying the latest IQS results religiously in the hope of heading off future quality problems? The unambiguous answer is: yes-no-maybe. The IQS is clearly a useful tool, but perhaps more for manufacturers than motorists. To really make it work, a savvy shopper would need to understand what the results really say – and then be ready to follow up by studying several other key reports from Power and other research firms that fill in the rest of the story.

First, it helps to understand that the IQS is designed to measure out-of-the-box quality, counting up "problems" with new vehicles during the first few months of ownership. And by that count, things have never been better. "This is, without doubt, the best level of quality we've ever seen," noted Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at JDPA, during a press conference sponsored by the Detroit Automotive Press Association.

But what does that really mean? Here's where things get controversial. Have a bad transmission? That counts as one problem. Can't figure out how to pair your iPhone to your Ford SYNC system? That also counts as one problem. J.D. Power people have debated that for years and there is logic to this seeming madness. If it bugs you, as an owner, it's a defect – or problem.

There are other studies that one might see as more significant these days.

What a longtime student of Power data will note, however, is that all manufacturers are getting better, and rather rapidly. Those bottom-ranked brands now have as few problems as even the best makers did a decade or so back. And how much of a difference is there, really, between a brand like Lexus, scoring 77 problems per 100 vehicles compared to a less-ranked Ford, at 118 "PP100"? They're both averaging around one issue for every one of their customers touched by the survey – not four or five as was common when Dave Power first got into the business tabulating surveys with his late wife around a dining room table.

The IQS is just one of many Power studies, meanwhile, and there are others that one might see as more significant from a consumer standpoint these days. The Vehicle Dependability Study, for one, looks at how the typical product is holding up after three years, closer to the time your factory warranty may be running out – or the age of the more desirably "previously owned" vehicles are being returned off-lease.

Intriguingly, there are some significant overlaps – Toyota and Lexus are still there on top – but also some conflicts. Ford, for example, ranked eighth in the latest VDS, and Detroit automakers do better on the Vehicle Dependability Study, on the whole than in the new Initial Quality Study.

But here's where things get really tricky: again, the number of problems after three years is relatively low and the gaps between best and worst far narrower than in years past. No question, quality counts, but is this the only thing that matters?

Power and other research firms, such as AutoPacific and Strategic Vision, have come to realize that so-called Things-Gone-Right can be as important as the Things-Gone-Wrong measured by classic quality surveys.

There's an ongoing debate about what matters most: things-gone-wrong or things-gone-right.

Sure, 16-percent of customers complained in the 2012 IQS about problems with their onboard infotainment and other electronic systems. But in the new J.D. Power APEAL study due out next month we're likely to find that even more buyers are choosing vehicles precisely because of these high-tech systems. Dodge is an example of a maker that does well in APEAL but lags in IQS. Last year, the domestic marque captured three different vehicle segment wins with its Challenger, Charger and Durango. Only BMW did as well.

Notably absent was Toyota, which took no segment awards in the last APEAL study, though it did score with its other brands with the Lexus IS and Scion xB.

No wonder there's an ongoing debate in the industry about what really matters most: things-gone-wrong (TGW) or things-gone-right (TGR). For his part, Power's Sargent suggests you look at them as "two sides of the quality coin."

Toyota's relatively lame performance in TGR studies like APEAL suggests that while it may deliver bulletproof products, it isn't going to excite and delight many customers – unless you're looking for a reliable appliance.

The fact is that all these studies need to be taken in context and, preferably, as part of a broader story. No one quality survey reveals the complete picture.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.




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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 18 Comments
      kuntknife
      • 2 Years Ago
      Spoiler alert, here's some future articles. Next week: Price is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car The following week: Warranty is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car The week after that: Status/Image is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car The next one: Connectivity to existing phones is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car And after that: Time to lap the 'Ring is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car Next: Cool/Dorky sounding name additions like SRT, SS, hybrid, the "e" prefix, tar-free, etc. is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car And finally: square meters of whale foreskin used in the interior is one of the most significant factors in buying a new car
      Avinash Machado
      • 2 Years Ago
      Also the various surveys like CR ,JD Power etc have conflicting results.
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      Burabus
      • 2 Years Ago
      It's OK, autobloggers will just disregard any quality reports that speak positively about foreign cars
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Burabus
        [blocked]
      budwsr25
      • 2 Years Ago
      I can say this GM builds garbage. I local dealer who we bought a pontiac from keeps calling wanting us to trade in the car for 2k over blue book. I asked him if was retail or wholesale value he laughed and said we will talk. He said bring the car in for a free oil change which you can't turn that down. While we waited we when for a look around and saw nothing but garbage. We looked at a brand new GMC suv and the door panel was loose and the driver seat moved. We then looked at a cadillac Crossover and it was leaking coolent. If that is what GM is building I don't want any of it.
        kuntknife
        • 2 Years Ago
        @budwsr25
        I'd never buy a Pontiac. I had a friend buy one way back when. 5 years later, BAM, herpes.
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
        dreadcthulhu01
        • 2 Years Ago
        What is really odd is that GMC (which sells nothing but rebadged Chevrolet Pick-ups & SUVs) always scores lower than Chevrolet on these sorts of surveys. Which implies all those FWD cars Chevy sells are more reliable than Chevy's trucks. And percentage wise, RWD cars are only a small part of Chevy's line-up; the only RWD cars Chevy sells in the US are the Corvette & Camaro, and between the two them they sold ~100,000 in 2011. Compare that to the 230,000+ Cruzes, 200,000+ Malibus, and 170,000+ Impalas they sold last year.
      Justin Campanale
      • 2 Years Ago
      The problem is that these surveys don't disclose what type of problems were reported. It can be anything from an engine fire to a small cup holder. Often, the people with the problems don't maintain their cars properly. Some certain cars, especially European cars, are strict with that kind of stuff,there will be problems if you don't properly maintain your car, so they are often rated lower than they should be.
        desinerd1
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Justin Campanale
        isn't that the point of this survey. With proper maintenance any car would work fine, but how much "proper maintenance" does each car need varies from one brand to another. I am fine with a high performance car (say M5) needing more maintenance. But a 528i shouldn't need more maintenance than Toyota Camry.
      Ernie Mccracken
      • 2 Years Ago
      "Today, J.D. Power and Associates is the quality field heavyweight, with all sorts of wannabes chasing for a piece of its multi-million-dollar consulting business." That is like saying land rover makes the most reliable vehicles on earth. Are you people on crack?
      regionrat
      • 2 Years Ago
      "That counts as one problem. Can't figure out how to pair your iPhone to your Ford SYNC system? That also counts as one problem." People will rag on Consumer Reports for this very same thing -- except it's not true. All issues are weighted -- and powertrain issues are weighed far more heavily than issues with, say, the radio. But yeah, the J.D. Power system is designed to pick a winner (the easiest way possible) and get them to pay for the J.D. Power "endorsement" so they can mention it in their ads. It's total crap.
      carguy1701
      • 2 Years Ago
      I still think the problems with MFT and the PowerShift transmission are being overblown. I interacted with a mid-level MFT system in an Exploder XLT in a dealer showroom about a year or so ago, and I did not have any problems working with it (then again, I'm more technically inclind than most people, so that could have played a part). As for the Powershift, I suspect the programming is at fault, rather than a design flaw (they said in press releases for the PowerShift that they programmed it to behave like a traditional torque converter automatic, something it most definitely is NOT). Plus, VW had teething issues with DSG at first, and now just about everyone loves that transmission.
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