American Cars vs. Import Cars: The Short Course on Vehicle Quality

The headlines have appeared nationwide: “Quality from Domestic Automakers Tops Imports for the First Time.” That was the quick takeaway from the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 U.S. Initial Quality Study, the latest version of a landmark report, conducted annually for the past 24 years. The study chronicled the ascendancy of the imports, and especially the Japanese brands, over the past two decades. When domestic automakers contended that they were being unfairly criticized in the motoring press for their supposed shortcomings, the J.D. Power IQS rankings made it crystal clear that there was, indeed, a quality gap between the import cars and the domestic brands.

Now, the most recent survey will undoubtedly be used by the domestic brands to tout their strong improvements in vehicle quality, and more to the point, to give American consumers a reason to buy domestic-brand vehicles again. Certainly, J.D. Power and Associates seems to suggest that by leading its press release on the IQS with the sentence “Domestic auto brands, as a whole, have demonstrated higher initial quality than import brands for the first time, according to [the study].” If you want the numbers, initial quality for domestic brands in the aggregate improved by four “problems per 100 vehicles” (PP100) in 2010 to an average of 108 PP100 -- slightly better than the initial-quality of import brands, which averaged 109 PP100 in 2010. So is it time to run out and buy an American car?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. As always, it depends on the car model you intend to buy. No one buys a composite “American car” any more than a composite “import car,” or for that matter, “Japanese car.” Consumers buy individual models, and individual models have varying degrees of “initial quality,” as indicated by the J.D. Power and Associates report.

It should also be noted that the report was designed for the automakers, not for consumers, and it’s intended to help automakers determine how relatively trouble-free the vehicles they produce are once they’re in the hands of consumer owners over the first 90 days of ownership. Since you probably intend to own the next new car you buy for longer than three months, you can take the IQS as an indicator of how problem-prone each model might be -- but you must take dependability and reliability largely on faith.

In any case, there are no doubts that many domestic models, including the Ford Focus, Ram 1500 LD and Buick Enclave, have experienced an increase in quality that helped drive the overall improvement of domestic automakers in 2010. J.D. Power noted the initial quality of Ford models has improved steadily for the past nine years, and 12 Ford Motor Co. models rank within the top three in their respective segments in 2010.

When it comes to the leading models in each segment, the picture looks different. Or, should we say, the same as in prior years, where imports continued to be best-in-class in most segments. For example, Honda received “segment leader” awards for the Accord and the Accord Crosstour, and Toyota received the same “segment leader” awards for the FJ Cruiser and Sienna. Lexus tied Ford with three segment leaders -- the GS, GX and LS models. The Hyundai Accent, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Frontier, Scion xB and Volvo C70 were each also ranked highest in their individual segments. That is 13 segment leaders in all for the imports. 

In contrast, domestic-brand vehicles led just five segments. Ford captured “segmentleader” awards for the Focus, Mustang and Taurus, while Chevrolet models earning awards were the Avalanche (in a tie) and the Tahoe. So while the American cars have improved their quality as a whole, if you’re looking for the top vehicle quality in a particular segment, import cars still rule the roost -- and that’s not something you would’ve guessed from the recent headlines.