J.D. Power needs to rethink its Vehicle Dependability Study

A poor Bluetooth pairing procedure is not the same as a blown engine.

J.D. Power's 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study is out, and, for the fifth straight year, Lexus is at the top of the rankings. I'm not shocked. In fact, I fully expect that new-car shoppers who buy a brand-new Lexus in 2016 will end up with a car that gives them very little to complain about. I could say the same for Porsche, which landed itself in second place.

But here's where things get murky. Sitting way down in 23rd is Subaru, followed by Scion. These too are automotive brands that I'd have no qualms recommending to buyers, depending on what that buyer is looking for (though Scion is on its way out, its vehicles will be sold as Toyota models starting in August of 2016). And the same can be said of Mazda, which languishes in 21st, just ahead of Chrysler. Why are these generally well-liked makers of reliable automobiles so far down in J.D. Power's Dependability Study? The answer, unfortunately, is that they don't have very good infotainment systems.

According to J.D. Power, its study consists of "owner-reported problems during the past 12 months by original owners of three-year-old vehicles." So this latest report focuses on vehicles from the 2013 model year, which makes sense. But here's where the problems come in: "Symptoms are evaluated in eight vehicle system categories including: exterior; features/controls/displays; seats; interior; the driving experience; audio/entertainment/navigation; heating, ventilation and cooling; and engine/transmission."

The answer, unfortunately, is that they don't have very good infotainment systems.

Individual scores from each of these eight categories count toward a final all-encompassing score, and it's presented as problems per 100 vehicles. This year, the industry average was 152 problems per 100 vehicles, which is a few percentage points behind the average from last year. So, it would seem cars somehow got less reliable from 2012 to 2013.

Here's the problem: That's not true.

Says J.D. Power's press release: "The number of engine/transmission problems decreases to 24 PP100 in 2016 from 26 PP100 in 2015." Put simply, owners of 2013 model-year vehicles report fewer of the kinds of problems that keep cars stuck on tow trucks. Which is kinda the definition of dependability. So, why are the overall numbers getting worse?
  • Among owners who experienced a Bluetooth pairing/connectivity problem, 53% said the vehicle didn't find/recognize their mobile phone/device.
  • Among owners who indicate having experienced a voice recognition problem, 67% say the problem was related to the system not recognizing/misinterpreting verbal commands.

Now we get a sense of the problem. If an owner can't get his or her phone to connect via Bluetooth to the audio system, that's a problem. If an owner's audible command isn't properly deciphered by that annoying synthesized voice all infotainment systems seem plagued by, that's a problem. But are either of those problems as serious as a transmission that won't shift, or an engine that won't start? Not by my standards. But by J.D. Power's, the answer is yes.

J.D. Power rationalizes this discrepancy by saying that vehicle faults – such as a broken engine or transmission – can be fixed, while poorly designed user interfaces will irritate the consumer for the life of the vehicle. That may be true, but this isn't a Vehicle Irritation Study, it's a Vehicle Dependability Study. And a dependable vehicle is a vehicle that doesn't leave you stranded.

The moral of the story is this: Until the eight categories that make up J.D. Power's Vehicle Dependability Study get some sort of meaningful weighted rank, they need to be taken with a grain of salt.

J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability 2016

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