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With all the buzz over quality, what does it even mean?

An error message flashed on the instrument screen of a recently tested Tesla Model S. Photo credit: RICHARD TRUETT

Vehicle quality has been in the news quite a bit lately. Chrysler’s quality watchdog left his job in October right after Consumer Reports placed all of the company’s brands near the bottom of its latest list of most reliable and recommended vehicles.

And General Motors just moved several executives into new jobs in part to help improve the company’s quality. GM, like Ford, now has one of its top engineers in charge of purchasing.

And I recently experienced two episodes of poor reliability. Both required the appearance of a flatbed tow truck. I was driving my vintage Triumph sports car home from work only to have the oil pressure switch fail. That shut off the fuel pump and caused me to limp to the shoulder of a busy highway at rush hour.

Waiting nearly two hours for the flatbed to arrive with traffic speeding by 6 feet away in the dusk was a nerve-wracking experience. I’d be really angry if I bought a new car that suddenly stopped. I likely would not purchase another from the same brand.

During the ride home in the tow truck with my TR8 on the flatbed, I asked the driver what new cars he picks up and hauls in for service. Any Chrysler, Dodge, Ram or Fiat vehicles? “Nope,” the driver said, “I don’t see many of those.” He told me Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs account for most of the newer cars he extracts from the side of the road. Also, he said, cars that don’t have spare tires, just run-flat tires, also get towed frequently.

That exchange had me wondering about the phrase “poor quality” and what it actually means these days.

I called AAA’s national headquarters and several national associations for tow truck operators looking for a list of the most frequently towed, newer vehicles. I wanted to know which late-model cars and light trucks are scooped off the side of the road for mechanical failures, not because of flat tires, wrecks or owners who neglected to maintain their minivan or coupe. Apparently, no one compiles such data.

Still, the meaning of “poor quality” has changed over the years. Twenty years ago, poor quality was probably a mechanical glitch that stopped a vehicle from operating or performing as needed. Now, it may mean just a rattle in the glove box or clunky electronics.

There are two highly influential, 800-pound gorillas that often set the quality agenda for automakers, consumers and the media: J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports.

One of them, J.D. Power, obscures quality scores with design. In addition to problems that have caused a complete breakdown or malfunction in the first 90 days of ownership, J.D. Power tracks controls or features that “may work as designed, but are difficult to use or understand.”

If something works as designed, it should not be given demerits for quality. Some people can’t figure out how to set the digital clocks on their stoves. They will never likely understand Bluetooth, OnStar, navigation systems or many of the other features found on today’s cars.

Mark Rechtin, a former Automotive News West Coast editor who is now Consumer Reports’ cars content development team leader, says the magazine measures reliability “in terms of things that break significantly enough that it causes you to be out of pocket with time at the mechanic or with money to fix it.”

“The sort of ‘secondary quality’ where you cannot figure out infotainment or don't like the size of the cupholder does NOT enter into the equation. In that sense, CR’s results are unique, because J.D. Power now includes both reliability as well as design, ease-of-use, etc., into its results.”

Quality matters, of course, because it can drive up an automaker’s warranty costs and can undermine consumers’ confidence in a brand. But there should be a better way to convey what we are really talking about when we use the phrase “poor quality.”

The second quality issue I experienced was in a Tesla Model S. Two weeks ago, a supplier invited auto writers to test drive about a dozen cars with cutting-edge technology.

The Model S performed well during the two laps I drove it around an abandoned airport. Its electric motor provides instant thrust. The whir of the gears in the transmission gives the car a futuristic sound. The Model S’s chassis and brakes are nailed, and the build quality seems decent, though some of the interior trim is subpar.

Later in the day, I headed for the Model S again. No dice. The Tesla flat-lined completely and wouldn’t move or even turn on. An error message flashed on the instrument screen.

Here was poor quality, old-school style, in one of the most advanced cars on the road. This could be a frightening, frustrating glimpse of the future as cars become more dependent on computers and electronics.

With my old Triumph, at least I could move it slowly under its own power and get it to a relatively safe spot.

When a Tesla decides it doesn’t want to move, it’s about as responsive as a computer with a frozen hard drive. After more fiddling -- attempting to reboot the car -- the Model S went totally dark and was later removed by a flatbed truck. The problem: It blew a main fuse.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@autonews.com

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