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FCA keeps switching quality chiefs, but problems linger

Two years ago this week, Fiat Chrysler fired Doug Betts as head of quality after another poor performance on Consumer Reports’ annual quality survey. He was replaced by Matt Liddane.

Then this past May, FCA shuffled Liddane off to a role as head of quality for subsidiary Magneti Marelli and named Scott Garberding head of quality.

FCA’s troubles with Consumer Reports continued unabated in results announced today. In this year’s survey, four of its brands finished in the four lowest slots: Dodge was at 26, Chrysler 27, Fiat 28 and Ram in last, at 29. Jeep was FCA’s best-performing brand, and it finished only at 23.

Compare that to last year, when Chrysler was 22nd, Dodge was 23rd, Ram was 26th, Jeep was 27th and Fiat 28th.

Betts, Liddane and Garberding all are talented executives with long, successful resumes, yet none has been able to turn around FCA’s laggard reputation when it comes to quality.

Put two data points together, and you can draw a line. Put three together, and well, that just might indicate a trend.

So could it be, perhaps, that the ongoing issues that FCA has had with the quality of its products doesn’t start or stop with the guy heading the quality department?

If recent history is any guide, the root causes of FCA’s persistent quality issues probably start with the way the automaker interacts with its suppliers and the way it develops its vehicles.

Supplier issues

In annual surveys, suppliers have consistently criticized FCA for making costly, last-minute changes to its products, for delaying design decisions waiting for executive sign-offs, and for trying to squeeze cost savings from its supply network. None of these practices has particularly endeared FCA to its supply base, and they force those suppliers to cut corners in order to stay profitable.

Then there is the way that FCA has designed its vehicles -- not all of them, but certainly enough to have an outsized effect on the outcome of third-party quality surveys. FCA has shown a tendency to rush vehicles to market before they were fully cooked. The Dodge Dart, for example, in 2012 didn’t have the right transmission. Or the Jeep Cherokee in 2013, which had the transmission but didn’t have the software to make it work right.

Both of these things share a common theme: money. Could it be a corporate unwillingness to spend the money other automakers routinely spend to nip such issues in the bud before they show up in consumer quality surveys?

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that FCA doesn’t spend money, and where it invests, such as with the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica, it tends to get results.

But elsewhere in the lineup, the cash-strapped automaker’s executive leadership seems to have decided that it’s better to spend on incentives than on investments to fix these issues. At least that appears from the outside to be the case, though I’m happy to stand corrected.

No comment

I asked FCA for a statement about the latest Consumer Reports results, but no such statement was provided to Automotive News.

To be sure, Consumer Reports takes rightful hits for its annual survey methodology. I’ve never been a fan of it, and what its readers consider a quality issue can be night-and-day different from what an engineer would consider a quality issue.

But in its press release today, Consumer Reports’ discussion of FCA contained two contextually damning sentences. It reads: “No Fiat or Ram vehicle managed even an average reliability rating. Only the Chrysler 300 sedan, Dodge Grand Caravan minivan, and Jeep Patriot SUV managed an average or better score.”

That’s damning, because all three of those named vehicles -- the ones that performed the best among FCA’s lineup, according to Consumer Reports -- are old, including the Patriot, which is set to end production later this year.

And no matter how you spin it, that’s not a sign of a company headed in the right direction on quality.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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