Maintaining a positive product reputation seems to be easier at times than maintaining the quality of the product itself; or at least that’s how it seems to go in the auto industry.
I wrote a column in January in which I sought to invalidate the hackneyed perception that domestic car companies were hurting under governmental control. I also briefly argued against a similarly false perception that foreign-branded cars are necessarily of a higher caliber than American ones. The most recent vehicle dependability study by J.D. Power and Associates supported that second argument.
The 2013 study surveyed over 37,000 car owners of 2010 model year cars. It showed an average of 126 problems per 100 cars from each automaker represented in the survey – which, by the way, is a five percent improvement over the average found in last year’s study. But, those who would expect Japanese and German brands to dominate the rankings – as stereotype suggests they do – might be shocked upon a closer look at the results.
In trying to present findings without bias, I must note that Toyota, in accordance with the reputation it’s built, scored highly. Its luxury division Lexus proved valuable as well, as it bested all other brands in the study.
However, foreign domination seemed to end there because in problems per 100 vehicles produced by an individual automaker in 2010, domestic company Lincoln – which no one would typically expect to win a dependability test – tied the score of said dependable Toyota. Both automakers scored higher than the perfectionist German brand Mercedes-Benz.
Buick – a domestic company particularly known for its stigma as a clunky, old man-targeted brand – succeeded in outscoring many foreign companies to which stereotype would have them lose, including Honda, Mazda, Subaru, BMW and even Toyota’s youth division, Scion.
Even more astonishing was that historically premium German automaker Audi scored well below the industry average, and its parent company Volkswagen did a lot worse. Japanese automakers Nissan and Infiniti also fell well below average, and Mitsubishi scored even worse than Volkswagen. The lowest on the dependability list was British company Land Rover, parent to the favorite luxury brand of rappers and rich moms, Range Rover. All six of these companies scored below domestic brands Ford, Cadillac and GMC.
The study also seemed to challenge the perception of carry-over models to be less problematic than all-new model or significantly redesigned cars. Reliability has conventionally shown to improve in the second or newer year of production, due to a natural learning curve period automakers tend to need to work out kinks. However, 2010 model year cars that had been overall unchanged from the 2009 model year scored worse in this study than all-new or significantly redesigned 2010 models.
What does all this mean? It shows that many automakers are making the effort to manufacture better products than ever before. And, especially when recent years have shown a more competitive used car market than new car market, that work is to our benefit.
Keep a sharp eye out when you approach your inevitable new-car-buying days because the natural pattern of business tends to show fluctuation in product consistency, and that surely doesn’t exclude car companies. Will today’s dependable automakers be as trustworthy when you buy your next car? No one can know, but at least you’ll have research studies like this to keep those companies – and their affiliated stereotypes – in check.