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Award Anxiety: How Can the Best Car Brands Also be the Worst?

Various awards and studies are meant to help consumers pick and choose the auto industry’s best products often reach opposite conclusions. Here's why.
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In the newly released Total Quality Index, trans-Atlantic automaker Fiat Chrysler was named the industry’s top-ranked manufacturer, with six models, including the little Fiat 500 and the Dodge Charger muscle car, named best-in-segment.

That might come as a shock to anyone who caught a different survey released exactly a month ago by the well-regarded research group J.D. Power and Associates. The annual Initial Quality Study found Fiat at the absolute bottom of 33 manufacturers, with the Chrysler brand coming in just two slots higher.

Power put Porsche at the head of its class, followed closely behind by Kia and Hyundai.

Yet another recent study echoed that, ranking the two Korean carmakers at the top, but that was about the only thing that a consumer might have found in the Vehicle Satisfaction Awards put out by research firm AutoPacific that fell in line with J.D. Power’s findings.

If all these various studies are meant to help consumers pick and choose from the industry’s best, what’s a motorist to do? Anyone who follows politics knows voter surveys often conflict, reflecting sample bias and built-in margins of error. But when it comes to automotive studies, the results are often diametrically opposed.

Part of the challenge is to understand what each study is meant to accomplish. Many of them focus specifically on what are, in industry-speak, “Things Gone Wrong.” That, in itself, generates plenty of controversy because these can be as diverse as a faulty transmission or a balky voice navigation system. Indeed, the J.D. Power IQS counts them equally when determining how many “problems” buyers run into during the first three months of ownership.

But are Things Gone Wrong really a good measure of vehicle quality? Maybe not, contends Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, the firm behind the new Total Quality Index. “Counting problems,” he contends, gives a misleading image of what’s actually happening in the real world because, “In 2015, 100 percent of all brands had less than half-a-problem on average per vehicle.”

Put another way, half of the 46,000 owners who responded to the Strategic Vision questionnaire reported having not a single issue with their vehicle.

For the TQI, then, the research firm took into account 155 different aspects of an owner’s experience, according to the research firm, including impressions about design, performance and features to measure what the company suggests is “love for the product.”

That’s more in line with what AutoPacific did with its recent Vehicle Satisfaction Awards, explains founder George Peterson. It’s goal is to measure “Things Gone Right.”

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These are two very different measurements and actually reflect very different buyer attitudes. For some consumers, the joy of ownership is all about having the most bullet-proof vehicle they can buy, even if it is little more than an appliance on wheels, a description long used for Toyota models like the Camry and Corolla.

For others, they’re willing to put up with the occasional headache to own a more passionate vehicle, one with a striking design, tremendous performance or breakthrough technology.

In fact, J.D. Power added another survey, a few years back, dubbed APEAL -- short for Automotive Performance Execution and Layout – which is more focused on those things that excite consumers. Significantly, Porsche continued to dominate, just as it did in Power’s things-gone-wrong study, the IQS. And other European makers, such as Audi and BMW, came in close behind. But the Koreans didn’t do nearly as well.

Adding to the confusion, while some studies focus on the things owners observe in the months after they buy their new vehicles, other studies look at long-term reliability. And there, it seems, the Japanese continue to dominate, according to the likes of J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study.

Digging through the various studies, several trends stand out:

  • Quality overall has been increasing rapidly over the past decade, and the gap between best and worst has narrowed significantly;
  • Korean carmakers, as well as General Motors, have made some of the most dramatic improvements in out-of-the-box quality;
  • Traditional mechanical problems, such as a faulty transmission, are increasingly rare, especially during the first year, but high-tech systems have become the new owner’s biggest headache;
  • Japanese makers no longer have a lock on initial quality but tend to do better after several years of ownership;
  • If you’re not focused entirely on counting problems, you may find that some less-than-stellar brands, such as Fiat and Chrysler, deliver the sort of surprise-and-delight features you won’t get from more solid, but stolid, makes.

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