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.
Quality remains one of the most significant factors for folks buying a new car.
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.
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.
Be ready to follow up by studying several other key reports from research firms that fill in the rest of the story.
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.
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.
There are other studies that one might see as more significant these days.
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.
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.
There's an ongoing debate about what matters most: things-gone-wrong or things-gone-right.
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.