Not long after I bought a new Chevrolet Cruze hatchback last year, J.D. Power sent me its initial quality survey and a crisp new dollar bill to guilt me into filling it out.
The Chevy -- my first since the late 1970s -- has exceeded nearly all my expectations. GM's advertising doesn't tell you about all the cool extras you get with the car, such as a monthly notice giving you updates on the health of the vehicle right down to the pressure in each tire, the built-in Wi-Fi, etc. That's neat stuff.
I bought a Cruze without navigation because I use the Siri feature on my iPhone for directions. Not having navigation on the info screen reduces clutter and time wasted scrolling through confusing menus. With the Cruze's built-in Bluetooth capability, Siri should be able to communicate with the car through the iPhone and convey the verbal turn-by-turn directions through the Cruze's speakers. That didn't happen, and so on the J.D. survey, I dinged the Cruze.
But when I griped about it on Facebook, I learned from a GM PR person my "ding" had nothing to do with the Cruze or the iPhone. It was my fault -- operator error. You have to access Siri with the button on the steering wheel, not from the phone, Buick spokesman Stuart Fowle explained to me.
I tried that method and sure enough, Siri works perfectly. But it was too late to change my J.D. Power rating on the Cruze's infotainment system from poor to what it really is: very good.
This experience -- in my view -- exposes a real weakness in the J.D. Power surveys.
Car companies' quality ratings suffer even when there is nothing wrong with a vehicle and it is performing as designed. If a sales rep fails to communicate how the growing array of confusing electronic features work, if buyers nod, smile and appear to understand -- but really just want to complete the purchase and leave, only to be frustrated later -- the automaker is going to suffer the consequences.
I don't think that's fair. J.D. Power's definition of quality is too broad and should focus only on items in the car that break or malfunction. There should be a separate 90-day survey that measures performance of a vehicle's systems.
During a recent visit to Automotive News, Doug Betts, J.D. Power's senior vice president and general manager of global automotive operations, addressed these issues and explained the reasoning behind lowering a brand's quality rating even if certain features are working as intended.
Betts has held a number of high-profile jobs dealing with quality in recent years, including senior vice president and global head of quality at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. So, he's been on the receiving end of the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey results.
Speaking specifically to my Cruze/Siri situation, Betts said: "It's a quality of service problem. You can say the best execution wouldn't have you make the wrong guess. It would be so obvious that you wouldn't press the wrong button. The better car would have been one that wasn't so difficult that you had to struggle to figure out."
J.D. Power isn't the only firm that measures quality, but, along with Consumer Reports, it is one of the best known, and it is trusted. And it is massively influential.
Another company measuring quality, Truedelta.com, takes a different approach. It doesn't count operator error against a car vehicle's quality ratings. Truedelta is tiny compared with J.D. Power and others but may have a better idea in this area. It links more than 100,000 car owners who directly report repair experiences with their new vehicles.
If you want to dig around on Truedelta, go here: https://www.truedelta.com.
"My concern is whether the public, when they hear a quality score, is thinking about it in the same terms as whomever conducted the survey," said Michael Karesh, who founded Truedelta 13 years ago. He said a quality score that includes operator error could convey to potential buyers that a car needed more repairs than it actually required.
"I think it is good thing to measure both types of problems," design quality and things gone wrong, he said, "but don't combine them into one score."
Betts says new-car buyers are becoming dependent on advanced features, and they must be intuitive to use.
"When we first had voice recognition in a car, it was a novelty, something you showed your friends and that you hoped worked so they'd be impressed. Now, people expect that stuff to work and they count on it. People are in a hurry when they jump in their cars and they want to be driving when they ask for directions; they need it to work."
So, here's the bottom line for automakers: If you want to raise those J.D. Power scores, first, make sure your car doesn't break. Then -- and even more importantly -- have a robust delivery process that ensures every new customer knows how to operate every feature before they drive home.
And finally, here's my question to you:
Should quality surveys only pertain to parts that break and systems that don't work as advertised? Or should car companies' quality ratings take a hit if, for whatever reason, the end user doesn't know how to use a feature?
Betts says quality as J.D. Power defines it, covers it all. "At the end of the day our role is to try and help automakers improve," says Betts. "And everyone needs to improve because no one is making perfect cars yet."