Vehicle Quality Improves for 2008

If you think cars are getting better, you’re right. According to market research firm J.D. Power and Associates, the initial quality in the automotive industry has improved significantly in 2008, and the improvements are nearly across the board. The study reported substantial gains by nearly three-fourths of the 36 ranked automotive brands. Now, in the first 90 days of ownership, the owner of an industry-average car can expect just about one problem (based on the study-reported score of 118 per 100 vehicles). The score in 2007 was 125 problems per 100 vehicles.

While the overriding trend is positive, there are a few flies in the oatmeal. Most of them revolve around the driver and passenger interfaces with new technology like navigation and entertainment systems. Some of these systems are so complex and baffling that they generate reported problems even though they work as designed by the manufacturers and their suppliers. 

“As consumer demand for new and more advanced wireless communication, navigation and audio technology continues to grow, manufacturers face challenges related to how well these systems are integrated into their vehicles,” said David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates. “In particular, issues with difficult-to-use audio and entertainment controls and voice-command recognition failure are among the top 10 problems most frequently reported by customers. Since hands-free communication for drivers will become a mandate in more and more areas throughout the U.S., this will need to be an area of continued focus for automakers.”

On the other hand, the study found that auto manufacturers are doing a very good job of eliminating actual defects and malfunctions. In fact, some 86 percent of the overall improvement is due to advancements in these areas. In other words, today’s cars are largely without mechanical flaws.

The sudden rise in gasoline prices is influencing many to consider smaller cars than in the past, and this might stir fear of diminished quality versus larger, more luxurious cars. But the study reports that there are many high-quality small cars on the market.

“The good news for consumers in this difficult environment is that they can downsize with confidence, as there are many models with high initial quality in the smaller-vehicle segments,” Sargent said.

While there was broad improvement in vehicle quality for 2008, there was particularly positive news for the increasingly beleaguered domestic manufacturers. For instance, as a brand, Mercury was rated better in quality than Honda, while Cadillac and Chevrolet both led Acura and Nissan. The top-ranked brand was Porsche, followed, in order, by Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.  

The Initial Quality Study is an industry benchmark for new-vehicle quality measured at 90 days of ownership. Initial quality has been shown over the years to be an excellent predictor of long-term durability. The study captures problems experienced by owners in two distinct categories: quality of design and defects and malfunctions.