South Korean cars rank highest for quality in new survey — but Detroit isn't far behind

Once known for low-cost, but often problem-plagued, vehicles, South Korea has made quality a top priority in its bid to expand sales in the U.S.
Image: Kia Motors Corp. vehicles sit outside a Kia car dealership in Ottawa
Kia Motors Corp. vehicles sit outside a Kia car dealership in Ottawa, Illinois on Sept. 3, 2013.Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, you can expect to pay more than ever. Industry data shows that prices have risen to record highs — but what you’ll likely get for your money is a vehicle with fewer problems than ever before.

New vehicle quality has improved for the fourth consecutive year, according to the annual J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Survey. There continue to be nagging problems, especially when it comes to onboard electronics like infotainment systems, but even the manufacturers are beginning to get things under control.

“There’s no question that most automakers are doing a great job of listening to consumers and are producing vehicle quality of the highest caliber,” said Dave Sargent, the head of global automotive research for Power.

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However, there are still problems. "As vehicles become more complex and automated, it is critical that consumers have complete confidence in automakers’ ability to deliver fault-free vehicles,” said Sargent.

In the IQS, the lower the score the better, as it refers to the number of problems per 100 vehicles, or PP100, reported by owners. The average score for the 31 brands included in the 2018 study is 93, an all-time low, according to Sargent.

Widely followed by consumers and the auto industry, the study contains more than a few surprises in its latest release. For one thing, the three highest-ranked brands are South Korean. That includes the two-year-old Genesis, the luxury spin-off from Hyundai, which leads the industry with an overall score of just 68; followed by Kia, last year’s leader at 72; and Hyundai itself at 74.

Once known for low-cost, but often problem-plagued, vehicles, the South Koreans have made quality a top priority in their bid to expand sales in the U.S. Kia topped the IQS in both 2016 and 2017. The smaller of that country’s mainstream brands also ranked number one in the Vehicle Satisfaction Awards presented this week by another research firm, AutoPacific. The VSA looks at surprise-and-delight features as well as quality problems.

The Power IQS specifically focuses on what, in industry-speak, are “things-gone-wrong” during the first 90 days of ownership, something that the research firm claims will give a good indicator of longer-term reliability.

Another surprise in the 2018 IQS is the strong showing by mainstream brands that normally rank well below luxury marques, six of the top 10 brands targeting the mass market. While Porsche is fourth this year, Ford rounds out the top five brands with a score of 81. The Detroit automaker had been running below average for much of the decade but has also targeted major quality improvements.

Overall, mechanical problems — whether faulty transmissions, or squeaks, rattles and wind noise — have largely vanished, according to Power, with electronic gremlins the top source of consumer complaints. But this area has shown improvements for the last three years, especially when it comes to voice recognition systems. That said, problems with the new generation of advanced driver assistance systems have been increasing by 20 percent annually as more of that technology shows up in luxury and mainstream vehicles.

Ford isn’t the only domestic automaker to show big momentum in the 2018 Power IQS. In fact, Detroit brands improved notably faster than the industry overall. On average, the various Fiat Chrysler Automobiles brands had seven fewer problems, or 7 PP100, less than a year ago. Ram, the pickup brand, landed in the top 10 for the first time ever, though the rest of the company’s marques still lag below average: The namesake Chrysler brand scored 111.

Jaguar Land Rover sits at the very bottom of the survey, with scores of 148 for the Jaguar side of the company, and 160 for Land Rover. The poor showing reflects, in part, the launch of a number of new models.