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Quality becomes transparent in Japan

TOKYO - J.D. Power Asia Pacific Inc. last week released its first quality survey in Japan based on independent consumer response, the first time car shoppers here have had access to the firm's quality ratings.

Until now, J.D. Power's quality and customer-satisfaction surveys in Japan were commissioned by the automakers, which controlled the lists of car buyers the market research company relied on.

The carmakers made those lists available to J.D. Power on condition that the results of the survey not be released.

This time, Power bypassed the automakers. Instead, it used panels and focus groups as the basis for mailed surveys, which otherwise follow the same Initial Quality Survey approach used by the firm in the United States.

"I don't know how people will use this," said William Nestuk, Tokyo-based auto analyst for WestLB Panmure Securities.

"The Japanese don't know anything about J.D. Power. I don't think it's very significant - yet. But if they're going to be announcing this every year, in two or three years, it could have an impact,"

The results of the 2001 Minicar Initial Quality Survey could surprise shoppers.

Although Suzuki Motor Co.'s Wagon R long has been Japan's best-selling vehicle, it is far from being Japan's highest quality car in the minivehicle segment, according to the survey. That honor belongs to the Subaru Pleo.

The Pleo had only 104 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with 161 per 100 for the Wagon R, according to the survey. The Wagon R score was 13 problems per 100 worse than the industry average.

Anchoring the list were the Mitsubishi Toppo BJ and the Daihatsu Mira, tied with 201 problems per 100 vehicles.

The Pleo benefited from its relatively trouble-free continuously variable transmission, which allowed it to rank tops in the transmission category. It also topped its rivals by having fewer complaints about its engine, seats, and ride and handling.

The nine models surveyed account for 83 percent of Japan's minicar market, Power said.

Not surprisingly, customers were most dissatisfied with the small 660cc engines.

"Engine power needs the most attention," said Atsushi Kawahashi, group manager for auto industry surveys at J.D. Power Asia Pacific.

Although some makers use turbos to boost the output of the small powerplants, a change in regulations two years ago that allowed minicars to become heavier and a move towards less aerodynamic tall wagons has left consumers less than delighted by their car's engine.

Air-conditioner capacity, or lack of, ranked next among the most common complaints.

Kawahashi attributed this to the small size of the engine and the increasing interior cabin space of minicars.

The company received responses from 947 new-car owners of nine models representing five makes. The survey was conducted in August and questioned buyers who had purchased their cars within the prior two to nine months.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com

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