Automakers Making Big Strides in Quality, Says J.D. Power

June 4, 2008

2008 Chevrolet Malibu

2008 Chevrolet Malibu

The quality of the typical car, truck, and crossover has reached record levels, according to a new study by J.D. Power and Associates. The annual Initial Quality Study finds “substantial gains” by nearly three-fourths of the 36 ranked nameplates sold in the U.S.

The improvements can be found among American, European, and Asian automakers alike, with owners reporting an average 118 problems per 100 vehicles in the 2008 IQS, a sharp decline from the year before, when the typical ’07 suffered from an average 125 “problems” for every 100 vehicles.

The study--which asks owners to list problems their vehicles experienced after the first 90 days in service--found Porsche to be the most problem-free manufacturer, its vehicles suffering an average 87 problems per hundred, or PP100, in Power-speak. Nissan’s luxury division, Infiniti, jumped from ninth to second in this year’s IQS, with an average 98 PP100. Its archrival, Toyota’s Lexus brand, which long dominated the quality charts, slipped from second to a still-respectable third.

By and large, U.S. automakers held their own, though only the Ford Motor Co.’s flagship Ford brand landed in the IQS Top 10, with an average 112 problems. That was nine fewer defects than in 2007. Four General Motors brands, including Chevrolet and Buick, scored above the industry average 118 PP100, but its Saturn division dropped to 33rd among the 36th brands. Power Vice President Dave Sargent cautioned that Saturn’s poor performance reflected the brand’s flood of new product--which typically fare more poorly than models already in production.

But even there, noted Sargent, “Launches, on the whole, are getting better.” In particular, he pointed to the all-new Chevrolet Malibu, which was named best in the Midsize category, as well as the new Infiniti EX, which scored a victory in the Entry Premium segment.

The overall numbers, Sargent said, are good news for the auto industry” and for consumer, and reflect a general emphasis by manufacturers on driving quality into the assembly process. But manufacturing defects are only part of the quality story, Sargent stressed, emphasizing that the best vehicles are designed to eliminate defects in the first place.

In general, the focus on improved design and manufacturing has paid off, according to the latest IQS results. The survey boils down the responses of 81,500 owners of 2008-model vehicles. They were asked to check off any of 228 possible problems, divided into eight separate categories. Significantly, gains were made in all but one of those categories, that one covering audio, entertainment, navigation, and related electronic technologies.

Makers face a “considerable risk,” said Sargent, incorporating all that new, digital hardware, but it is also a potential plus that buyers are increasingly coming to demand. He foresees a “battleground” as makers look to integrate newer and better technology without running into the sort of problems BMW has often been faulted for with its quirky iDrive controller.

Of the 36 brands included in the 2008 IQS, only seven posted declines, including Chrysler’s Jeep division, which ranked dead last, with 167 problems, or 6 PP100 more than it tallied in 2007. In fact, all of Chrysler’s brands came in well below average. Only slightly better, at 163 PP100, was BMW’s British import brand, Mini. Land Rover, perennially at the bottom of the charts, again came in third to last, with 161 problems.

While any and all sorts of problems could cost a manufacturer points, from a poorly designed cup holder to an engine failure, many owners complained about fuel economy--no surprise, said Sargent, considering the study was conducted just as fuel prices started their march upward. The complaints were clearly loudest among those who had bought big gas guzzlers. But “on average,” the Power analyst noted, “hybrid owners report more fuel consumption problems” than those operating conventional vehicles. That reflects the fact that the gap between stated and delivered mileage tends to be wider with hybrids.

Significantly, no manufacturer dominated the 2008 IQS the way some brands--such as Toyota--had in the past. Among the 18 different vehicle segment winners were representatives of 11 different brands, and no manufacturer captured more than three segments.

The quality of today’s vehicle is notably better than it was even a decade ago. The worst models typically record lower scores than top-rated vehicles claimed in the late 1990s. But while the gap between good, middling, and bottom-ranked products may be relatively small, the numbers are still significant for consumers, contended Sargent. A high-quality vehicle will generate good word of mouth, and that can make all the difference in today’s competitive market.

Winners By Segment:

  • Sub-Compact Car: Honda Fit

  • Compact Car: Honda Civic

  • Compact Sporty Car: Mazda MX-5 Miata

  • Compact Premium Sporty Car: Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class

  • Entry Premium: Infiniti EX

  • Midsize Premium Car: Infiniti M-Series/Mercedes E-Class (tie)

  • Large Premium Car: Lexus LS

  • Midsize Car: Chevrolet Malibu

  • Large Car: Pontiac Grand Prix

  • Compact MAV: Honda CR-V

  • Midsize MAV: Dodge Durango

  • Large MAV: Toyota Sequoia

  • Midsize Premium MAV: Lexus RX

  • Large Premium MAV: Lincoln Navigator

  • Large Pickup: Chevrolet Silverado LD

  • Midsize Pickup: Dodge Dakota

  • Van: Ford E-Series

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