June 20, 2012 at 1:58 PM ET
The quality of the cars rolling out of U.S. dealer showrooms has reached the highest level ever, according to a new study by J.D. Power and Associates.
“This is, without doubt, the best level of quality we’ve ever seen,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power.
But while traditional problems like squeaks, rattles and electrical glitches have become increasingly uncommon, owners are registering a growing number of complaints about their high-tech audio, entertainment and navigation systems. Younger buyers -- those under 35 -- are about twice as likely as older buyers to complain about tech issues
Sargent described the challenge of building in more technology -- without quality issues as "the battleground of the future" among manufacturers.
Power’s 2012 Initial Quality Survey shows a nearly 5 percent improvement compared with last year’s results on the number of problems owners experienced with their vehicles. Of the 34 brands ranked by the IQS, 26 improved their 2011 results, only five showed declines. Of 185 different models that were on the market during both years, 65 percent improved their quality scores in 2012.
Lexus, the perennial leader in initial quality, topped the chart again. The automaker averaged just 73 problems per 100 vehicles included in the survey – 73 PP100 in J.D. Power-speak – or less than one reported problem for every vehicle Lexus sold. But Porsche and Jaguar were close behind, tied for second. That’s particularly significant since Jaguar “literally leapfrogged” from 20th place last year, said Raffi Festekjian, JDPA’s Director of Automotive Research.
Historically, brands that land in the upper quartile of the IQS have a significantly higher loyalty rate – measured by repeat buyers – than those who have more quality problems. And Power data suggest that quality and reliability is still the single most important factor in determining what vehicle to buy for 59 percent of American motorists.
“The good news is that the industry has made major improvements,” said Festekjian. He said the sharp increase in quality scores was all the more impressive considering manufacturers have “had to keep their eyes on the ball” even as their plants were running significant overtime to keep up with demand in the fast-recovering U.S. automotive market.
Now in its 26th year, the IQS actually covers two distinctly different sorts of potential problems. There are the classic defects and malfunctions, anything from a faulty turn signal to an engine failure, and there are the design-related problems. These can include such issues as poorly designed cupholders or a balky navigation system.
By traditional measures, there are fewer defects than ever. But there’s been a sharp 45 percent increase in problems related to audio, entertainment and navigation systems since 2006, according to Festekjian. Wind noise issues were traditionally the most common complaint fielded by the IQS. “Now, we’re seeing that hands-free systems not recognizing commands has become the number one reported problem,” he noted.
The problem is compounded because more cars come with hands-free systems of one sort or another – more than 80 percent of the vehicles covered by the 2012 IQS.
That underscores the challenge facing automakers like Ford. The second-largest of the domestic manufacturers has drawn in plenty of new customers with its Sync infotainment system. But problems programming the technology let Ford slip sharply in the 2011 IQS and it hasn’t fully recovered yet. Ford showed only a slight improvement in its score in the 2012 study, but slumped to well below the industry average of 102 problems per 100 with a brand score of 118 pp100.
Japanese makers in general topped the list, with seven of the 15 brands scoring above industry average. Detroit had four brands in that group, led by Cadillac with a score of 80 PP100. European makers had the remaining four above-average brands.
Two microcar brands, Fiat and Smart, lagged at the other end of the scale, with 151 problems per 100 vehicles. British Mini fared only slightly better with 139 PP100.
But even the weaker brands generally showed some improvement over their 2011 scores, noted Festekjian. He also pointed out that the old industry axiom that smart shoppers should wait until a vehicle is on the market for at least a year isn’t necessarily true anymore.
A number of all-new or completely redesigned vehicles actually did better than the models they replaced, including the Audi A6 and A7 lines, the Toyota Yaris, the Honda CR-V and the Mercedes M-Class.
“It’s a testament to how manufacturers are listening to the voice of the consumer and then embed that across the board from product planning to manufacturing to the dealer,” he said.
In terms of individual market segments, Ford and Lexus each led in three, for the Expedition, Taurus and Mustang and for the ES350, LS and RX, respectively. Nissan, Infiniti and Toyota each led in two segments.
The Porsche 911, meanwhile, not only topped the ranks of premium sporty cars but had the single best score of any vehicle since J.D. Power redesigned the IQS in 2006. The iconic sports car averaged just 44 PP100 in a study where the lower the score the better.
The annual quality study also singles out the highest-quality assembly plants and the Platinum Plant award was given to Honda’s Suzuka 3 assembly line in Japan, which produces the maker’s CR-Z crossover and Fit subcompact models.
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