Feedback
Business

Which Automaker Ranks Highest for Quality? Surprisingly, It’s Kia

Kia topped the list of brands in J.D. Power and Associates' 2017 Initial Quality Study, with all three Korean marques landing in the Top 10. So did four Detroit brands. But among the Japanese automakers, only Nissan made their rarified list.

The 2017 Kia Sportage is introduced at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles
The 2017 Kia Sportage is introduced at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, California. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

“It wasn’t a fluke,” said Dave Sargent, Power’s vice president of automotive research, noting Kia topped the list in 2016, as well. Along with fellow Korean brands Hyundai and Genesis, Sargent added, “They instill customer requirements… more religiously than anyone else and stick to that through product development.”

The rise of Korean brands as automotive quality leaders is just one of the many surprises in the 31st annual J.D. Power IQS. The fall of the Japanese is another. Between them, Toyota and its Lexus luxury brand led the annual consumer study 15 times, more than any other brand. But this year, Toyota dipped to 13th, just above industry average, while Lexus had a below average score based on the number of problems owners reported.

In Power lingo, that’s “problems per 100 vehicles,” or “PP100.” For Kia, the score was just 72, meaning only about seven in 10 owners reported even the most minor problems this year. Genesis, the recently launched luxury spin-off from Hyundai, had a score of 77. Porsche, which has won the IQS more often than any other brand but Lexus came in at 78.

Toyota, at 95 PP100, barely topped the industry average of 97 problems per 100, while Lexus had a score of 98. Among the Japanese, only Nissan was in the top 10, at 93. More notably, Nissan and Toyota were the only brands from Japan above industry average.

Touchscreen Blues

What went wrong? Sargent said there were some, generally minor, mechanical problems. But the big issues for almost all the Japanese — especially Toyota and Lexus — involved their high-tech infotainment systems.

“They have been slow to address this issue,” and as they have added new, and more advanced systems, Sargent explained, consumers have been complaining about balky technology that can often be difficult and confusing to operate.

Ironically, issues with audio, navigation and digital touchscreen systems are the same sort of problems that previously hammered brands such as BMW and Ford. But those makers are finally dealing with their own challenges. The German maker, which has finally gotten things worked out with its groundbreaking iDrive system, came in sixth in this year’s IQS. Ford, which had been hammered for its own infotainment headaches, jumped to fourth with the launch of an updated Sync3 system.

Related: J.D. Power 2017 Initial Quality Study

On the whole, automakers have been making some significant strides in resolving quality problems, at least as measured by the Initial Quality Study, which looks at vehicles during their first 90 days of ownership. (Another Power study examines longer-term reliability.) This year’s industry average of 97 problems per 100 vehicles is eight points better than the number just a year ago.

It reflects broad improvements, according to Sargent, in both mechanical issues and in vehicle design — manufacturers pushing to address potential problems before their products come to market. Infotainment and related technologies remain the biggest source of complaints in the 2017 IQS, but even there, the Power vice president said, there are signs of improvement.

A look at the latest IQS numbers reveals another surprising shift from years past. There were seven mainstream brands in the Top 10, compared to four luxury marques. (It was actually the Top 11 this year, due to ties.)

Traditionally, manufacturers have put extra emphasis on resolving issues before their more expensive luxury products reach showrooms. But makers like Kia, Ford, Chevrolet and Volkswagen have been pushing into and beyond luxury territory.

So Who's Last on the List?

As for the brands at the bottom? Fiat anchored the list at 163 problems per 100. It has been one of the perennial also-rans, as have other Fiat Chrysler brands, such as low-ranked Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler. But FCA’s Ram landed in the Top 10 for the first time.

Jaguar Land Rover was second to last this year, Sargent blaming that on problems with the launch of several key new offerings, notably the F-Pace, Jaguar’s first-ever SUV and already its best-selling product.

While automakers broadly improved quality with their 2017 models, there was one big trouble spot, according to Power: semi-autonomous features like blind spot detection, collision avoidance and active cruise control. With the industry racing to bring fully autonomous vehicles to market by early in the coming decade, the research firm warned that these should be taken as “early warning bells” the industry should address quickly.