Why auto quality ratings don't mean as much
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Telling a good car from a bad one is not as easy as it used to be. But that does not mean each one is necessarily as good as the rest.
“None of them are really awful anymore,” Jim Hall, managing director of the consulting firm 2953 Analytics, said here at the 2012 Management Briefing Seminars on Wednesday. “It's not like you're going to get it and the fender's going to fall off in a year.”
As the quality gap between the best and worst vehicles keeps narrowing, Hall and other analysts said consumers are more often basing their purchase decisions on harder-to-measure factors such as customer service, marketing effectiveness and the user-friendliness of in-car connectivity features.
Flat marketing can doom a good car to failure. As Ford Motor Co. found out recently, innovative but unproven features like its MyFord Touch touchscreen system can help sales but frustrate those buyers later on. And a negative experience at a dealership can drive customers elsewhere.
“How you treat a customer is really important,” said David Champion, senior director of automotive testing for the magazine Consumer Reports. “As long as you have some level of reliability, (a lower score) will be overlooked if you treat them right.”
In this year’s J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Survey, the difference between the top performer, Lexus, and most of the bottom dwellers is virtually meaningless in the real world, said Bernard Swiecki, a senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research. He noted that Lexus’ score of 73 problems per 100 vehicles averages to 1 problem per vehicle, as does Mini’s third-worst score of 139 problems per 100 vehicles.
“This is problems per 100 vehicles, but we tend to buy 1 at a time and you can’t have 0.7 of a problem,” Swiecki said. Such parity makes these types of ratings “still useful for some purposes, but not when it comes to differentiating between the brands,” he said.
Tom Libby, lead analyst of Polk’s North American forecasting practice, said consumers still consider quality when shopping for vehicles but their perception frequently plays a larger role than any true differences. That’s why, even though the quality of models built by the Detroit 3 has improved considerably, some people still refuse to consider buying one.
“The same brands repeat at the top and unfortunately the same brands repeat at the bottom” year after year,” Libby said. “It's perceived that there is still a significant difference in quality.”
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