Pity the poor car buyer who wants to be a smart consumer and reads all the quality studies before going to the showroom. How do you know what to believe?
For example, Consumer Reports' Reliability Survey gives props to the Scion xD. But Strategic Vision's Total Quality Award gives props to the Scion xB. And J.D. Power puts Scion near the bottom of the list of its Vehicle Dependability Survey. Who do you believe?

The problem is that these studies all measure different aspects of quality. Unfortunately, the mass media doesn't have time to delve into these distinctions and so all we get is their sound-bite analysis. Their favorite is that the Detroit Three are lagging behind the "foreign automakers" in quality.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.

Actually, in terms of dependability, Mercury and Cadillac rank #2 and #3 behind #1 Lexus. Lincoln is just a fraction behind BMW and ahead of Honda. Ford is tied with Infiniti, and they're both ahead of the industry average. And yet, of the 10 worst brands in the J.D. Power survey, 8 of them are import brands. But you never hear about that.

Besides, calling them the "worst" brands is all relative. The bottom of the list today would have been close to the top of the list a decade ago. It's like saying Los Angeles has the worst pollution in the country even though LA's air is now cleaner than it's been in half a century.

Of the 10 worst brands in the J.D. Power survey, 8 of them are import brands.
Even if you just use one source to measure quality it can be hard to figure out if you're not familiar with the methodology being used. For example, J.D. Power ranks Acura in its 5th spot with 160 defects, while Buick is in 6th spot with 163 defects. Keep in mind that this is the number of defects per 100 vehicles, so the actual difference between any one car from these brands is only 0.03 defect. Should Buick knock its brains out to try and close that gap? Or is there really any gap at all? Couldn't this just be "noise" in the survey? Besides, are Buick's older buyers simply more forgiving than Acura's younger ones? We don't know.

Part of the reason we don't know is that J.D. Power & Associates does not show its results in a consistent fashion from year to year, making it difficult to compare results over time. Moreover, unless you have complete access to the full study you have no idea of the kind of defects that are being reported (they certainly do not make the full report available to journalists!). If one brand has a high preponderance of engines blowing up, and another has a rattle in the ashtray, all we see is that both brands has defects. J.D. Power does weight the severity of defects, but we never see what goes into that weighting.

Strategic Visions doesn't measure defects. It interviews consumers and translates their responses into groups of "feelings" that it uses to rank the quality of cars. I have no question this approach is worth while, but I'm also sure members of the media would laugh out loud if they knew they were reporting on "feelings."

Many CR subscribers dutifully report the new car they just bought is as unreliable as CR warned them it would be.
Consumer Reports surveys its subscribers for its quality ratings, so we're only getting an accurate read of what its readers think. I'm not convinced this is a statistically accurate sample of the total car-buying public.

And I can't comprehend why anyone would subscribe to the magazine, then go out and buy a car that CR rates as undependable. Yet every year, many CR subscribers dutifully report the new car they just bought is as unreliable as CR warned them it would be. Something doesn't add up here. But it doesn't matter since CR's ratings are so incredibly influential that perception becomes reality in what the media reports.

Don't get me wrong. I think all these quality ratings are extremely valuable. I pore over them in great detail when they're released. It's very valuable to measure the quality of vehicles and make that information available to the industry and the public. But to be a smart consumer, you better make sure you understand what's being measured and put it in its proper context.


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