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Automotive Quality: Perception vs. Reality

The nation's car makers are facing a twin-turbo-sized challenge: consistently improving quality and standards on the shop floor while battling misperceptions about vehicle dependability in the court of public opinion.

Such was the gist of the newly released J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study, a U.S. market-based survey providing insights into quality and reliability as vehicles approach the end of a typical warranty cycle.1 One of the study’s main assessments: despite overall industry improvement in long-term dependability, some vehicle brands don’t receive the credit they’re due. The study found that while 25 of 36 vehicle brands—nearly 70%—have improved in long-term dependability in 2010, consumer perceptions of some of these brands have not kept pace with their actual performance.

In illustration: Several brands that perform well in long-term dependability in 2010 (Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, Lincoln, and Mercury) have the greatest lags between dependability performance and consumer perception.2 This despite receiving top awards in their respective model segments: Cadillac (CTS, STS, Escalade EXT); Ford (500, Mustang, Expedition, F-150LD, Ranger); Hyundai (Tucson); Lincoln (Mark LT, MKZ); Buick (LaCrosse, LuCerne, Terraza); and Mercury (Milan).

Other interesting tidbits: Lincoln improved by six rank positions from 2009, while seven of the 10 models with the lowest incidence of problems in the industry were cranked out of Ford and GM plants. More specifically, the Cadillac DTS had the fewest problems in the industry, with just 76 problems over 100 vehicles. This marks the first time in more than a decade that a model from a domestic manufacturer has achieved the lowest level of incidents score in the Vehicle Dependability Study.

Another intriguing revelation of the study was the extremely high performance rating for Toyota—a manufacturer that has had more than its fair share of bad press these days. According to J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota continues to perform well in long-term dependability, garnering a quintet of segment awards: Yaris, Corolla, Solara, Sienna, and 4Runner. That’s more than any other nameplate in 2010.

But according David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates, producing vehicles with world-class quality is just part of the battle for automakers. “Convincing consumers to believe in their quality is equally as important,” he noted.

This is no easy task. According to Sargent, it takes considerable time to positively change consumer perceptions of quality and dependability—sometimes a decade or more. Therefore, it is vital for manufacturers, he stresses, to continually improve quality while simultaneously convincing consumers of these gains.

What's the best way to achieve these parallel goals? Sargent suggests several approaches: provide extended warranties; incorporate features, materials, and finishes that convey a rich feel; ensure new models launch with better quality compared to their predecessors; and increase communication efforts about these quality improvements via traditional and emerging (read: social networking) channels.

In the short term, it can't hurt to maximize positive publicity. “The improvements in long-term dependability and component replacement rates are good news for both consumers and manufacturers,” Sargent said. “Manufacturers benefit from lower warranty expenses, while consumers incur lower maintenance and repair costs, as well as less convenience.”

That’s something we all can believe in.

REFERENCES

  1. J.D. Power and Associates’ annual Vehicle Dependability Study surveyed more than 52,000 owners on any problems encountered during the past 12 months on three year-old vehicles (model year 2007.)
  2. Methodology: The study, which measures problems experienced by owners of three-year-old (2007 model year) vehicles, includes 198 different problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. Overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality. 

 

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