Modern new cars and trucks suffer fewer mechanical breakdowns now than any of their predecessors — so much so that the key surveyors of quality among new vehicle owners has changed their methods. The latest version of the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey released today focuses on design flaws rather than mechanical ones, a switch that elevates Porsche to the top of the industry and gives General Motors high marks, while forcing Ford to add buttons to its MyFordTouch entertainment system after a second year of subpar grades.
Using about 83,000 questionnaires from owners who bought new cars and trucks between November 2012 and February 2013, J.D. Power found that two-thirds of the complaints owners had dealt with technology inside the car, from navigation systems to confusing cruise controls to problems pairing their phones with Bluetooth. Under the Power study a complaint doesn't mean something's broken — just that it isn't working as the owner thinks it should be.
By the revised scores, Porsche tops all automakers with 80 problems reported per 100 vehicles. General Motors' brands all performed well, with GMC ranked second at 90 problems per 100 vehicles sold, Chevrolet fifth at 97 problems per 100 and Cadillac and Buick above the industry average. Lexus (94) and Infiniti (95) came in fourth and fifth, with the Lexus LS getting the fewest complaints of any vehicle at 59 per 100.
But the news isn't all good for Toyota; it's Scion brand ranks last in the revised survey, with Fiat, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Mini rounding out the bottom five. The industry average stood at 113 problems per 100.
And the power of the new survey can be seen most vividly at Ford: Last year, after it ranked 27th out of 34 brands due to complaints with the balky MyFordTouch system that replaced traditional knobs with an in-dash screen, Ford vowed a set of software upgrades and training courses by dealers would improve its results this year, contending customers embraced the voice-activated controls and touch screen menus once they fully understood them.
This year, Ford ranked 27th again.
On Monday, without mentioning the J.D. Power results, Ford revealed that future versions of MyFordTouch would come with more buttons and knobs for key functions like tuning the radio — as it had on the latest versions of the F-150 pickup, the company's flagship vehicle.
Automakers have struggled to catch up with the technology buyers expect their new vehicles to have. Because it can take years to design a new car and test software, in-dash components always lag behind the latest gadgetry, and have interfaces custom-made by each automaker. "The majority of owners don’t experience problems, but those who do are frustrated," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "That’s understandable, especially when owners often keep their new vehicle for five years or more. In contrast, when consumers have a problem with their smartphone, they are likely to replace the phone much sooner.”
Other automakers are also making changes. Marc Trahan, executive vice president of group quality for Volkswagen's U.S. arm, says VW has made controls easier to use in some models — new climate controls in the CC sedan, clear cruise functions in the upcoming Golf — and upgraded voice recognition software to improve its scores in the future. "The customer wants things that are simple, easy to use and intuitive," he said, "and that's going to be one of the differentiators in the industry."
J.D. Power also handed out 26 model-level awards, with Chevy taking the most at five — although four of them (Silverado, Impala, Tahoe and Avalanche) were for vehicles that are either going out of production or will soon be redesigned. No other automaker won more than two.
J.D. Power's changes don't necessarily sit well with the auto industry. The industry-level scores come with a margin of error of seven problems, plus or minus; Chrysler could be as good as Toyota or as bad as Land Rover. The sample size for an individual model has to be a minimum of 100, but few cars get more than a few hundred surveys (J.D. Power didn't get enough surveys to grade Tesla.) Trahan says while he's "frustrated" with some of Power's methodology, the results are "directionally correct" — meaning for the next few years, automakers will have to pay more attention to not just whether their cars work, but how.