J.D. Power Initial Quality Study analysis

When I bought my first new car, back in 1973, I'd been warned by friends to expect a good half dozen defects that would need to be straightened out by the dealer. It turned out there were only five, I quickly counted, before taking my little sedan back to the shop for repairs. I was lucky. The worst problem I had to deal with was a loose mirror. A college chum, meanwhile, got stuck with a bad transmission on the new Chevrolet he bought about the same time. But he took it in stride, as long as it got fixed right. And so did just about everyone else. Dealing with defects was a part of buying a car back then.

One could argue surveys like IQS made Toyota and Honda by quantifying the quality gap.
But things started to change even before I was ready to trade in. The twin oil shocks of the '70s initially put the focus on fuel economy – more specifically on high-mileage imports. But as memories of gas lines faded, the emphasis shifted to the unexpectedly high quality the best of the Asians were delivering.

One could argue – as an NPR talk show host did during my appearance this morning – that J.D. Power and Associates, with surveys like the Initial Quality Study, made Toyota and Honda by quantifying that quality gap. And it was a big one, domestic makers routinely suffered twice the number of "problems" of the top foreign makers. Of course, even the imports had their issues back then, but as quality became a watchword, even the worst manufacturers suddenly started to make it a top priority, and, year-after-year, the defect count for the typical car rolling off the assembly line has steadily shrunk.

According to Power's latest survey, the average buyer of a 2010 car, truck or crossover is experiencing about 1.08 problems during the first 90 days of ownership. More precisely, in the language of the Initial Quality Survey, there are an average of 108 "problems" per 100 vehicles.

The products produced by the worst manufacturer on the list, Land Rover, suffered 170 problems per 100, or 170 PP100 – less than two glitches for every vehicle. Put another way, that's less than half what the best makers could deliver in the early years of the IQS. The best individual model, the Lexus LS, racked up just 55 PP100 on the latest study, which translates into just one complaint ticked off on the Power survey form by every other buyer.

And even that number, critics contend, may be a bit misleading. When Dave Power and his late wife, Julie, first began tabulating questionnaires on their dining room table, the emphasis was solely on what in industry speak are known as Things Gone Wrong. You're more likely to call them defects, whether it's a burned out bulb or a bad transmission.

But over the years, J.D. Power – now a subsidiary of media giant McGraw-Hill – has revised its approach. Today, the highly-influential Initial Quality Study also counts things that don't fall into the classic defect category. But is a poorly designed cupholder or an uncomfortable seat really the same sort of problem as a blown engine?

You could get a blown bulb replaced. You had to live with iDrive.
"When I was at Mini, we used to get low scores for 'Small Trunk,'" recalls Mike McHale, now the senior PR executive with Subaru. German makers, meanwhile, lament that they're routinely dinged for poor cupholder design, something that buyers in their home market couldn't care less about.

Yet, there's a valid counter-argument. Sure, that blown engine is likely to get an owner pretty worked up, but such serious issues are becoming less and less common. If you removed all the design-related "problems" that Power tabulates and just focus on classically defined defects, the average vehicle would have an even lower score than the Lexus LS.

That, in itself, might seem a lame defense. But if motorists now can worry less about actual defects – especially during the early part of the ownership experience – they're more likely than ever to pay attention to those irritants and annoyances. Like bad cupholders and poorly conceived navigation and infotainment controls.

The original BMW iDrive probably generated more frustration than anything else on the car. It might not have been broken, but then again, you could get a blown bulb replaced. You had to live with the iDrive. And the fact that the company got knicked, year after year, helped push the proud maker to finally come up with a better system, as I just discovered while spending a week in the new 5-Series GT.

Perhaps the name, Initial Quality Survey is a bit misleading, as it still draws to mind a measurement of actual mechanical defects. But quality, like art, is in the eyes of the beholder. And today's car buyer is less likely to differentiate between actual mechanical problems and something that is just poorly defined and engineered. So, while the IQS has evolved significantly, over the years, it remains a significant metric that shouldn't be ignored.

Paul 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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