LOS ANGELES - In 1987, the Toyota Cressida took the top spot in the debut edition of the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Survey with a score of 69 problems per 100 cars, or fewer than one defect per car.
In that first Initial Quality Survey, which measured problems reported by owners in the first 90 days of ownership, the Alfa Romeo Milano came in last with a score of 409 errors per 100 vehicles.
If the scores are a true indication of vehicle quality, much has changed for the better in the intervening 10 years.
In the latest Initial Quality Survey released April 30, 32 vehicles bested the Cressida's quality mark - including several trucks. And with a score of 38 defects per 100 vehicles, this year's passenger-car leader, the Lexus LS 400, did 81.5 percent better than that first Cressida.
What's more, the quality gap between top and bottom has narrowed dramatically since that first survey. Where 340 points separated the top and bottom cars in that first survey, the gap between this year's leader and the car that finished last - the Pontiac Firebird with a score of 178 - totaled 142 defects per 100 cars, or less than 1.5 defects per car.
In the years since those first surveys, the Initial Quality Survey has evolved into a closely watched industry benchmark which, each year, is sliced, diced and shaped by automakers and brand honchos into sales and marketing fodder.
But as the gap between first and worst has narrowed to an increasingly immeasurable band, the sentiment has grown accordingly that the quality survey may have outlived its purpose.
'The IQS is no longer of value to the customer,' Vic Doolan, president of BMW of North America Inc., said in a recent interview. But 'It is of (some) diagnostic value to the manufacturer, to find out what needs to be fixed.'
USEFUL AS A BENCHMARK
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Executive Vice President Yale Gieszl said he looks forward to the annual Initial Quality Survey results to benchmark the competition.
'It's important because it provides some comparative information,' he said. 'But there's more to quality than things gone wrong ... (and) our objective is not to get a good score on the Power numbers, it's to provide the best-quality car.'
Indeed, even J.D. Power's president acknowledges that the current survey may need some revision.
'The span of difference in quality is smaller than before, but the customer expectation has changed,' said J.D. Power President Steve Goodall.
'Now if there's any problem on delivery, it's not tolerable. There's a need to continue that, because it provides a metric to focus on. We're not at (zero defects) yet.'
To be sure, the survey has been criticized since its inception for overlooking some aspects of the quality experience and overemphasizing others. Among the complaints:
The survey does not discriminate between a squeaky door and an engine that blows up. For scoring purposes, both count the same.
No measure of so-called 'secondary quality' of componentry like switch gear and audio systems is factored into the overall score.
The survey does not measure owner response to the overall feel and design of the vehicle or the pleasure of driving the vehicle.
It cannot factor out the expectations of a customer responding to the survey. This is important because a Toyota customer typically has higher standards than a Geo customer, which has resulted in very different scores for identical badge-engineered vehicles.
There are so many different segments for quality awards cited by so many different automakers that a thumbs-up from Power has become diluted.
There is no accounting for the different demographics of buyers, as seen in the perplexingly different scores for twin vehicles like the Honda Passport and Isuzu Rodeo.
And now that the quality scores have basically reached parity, is it time for J.D. Power to move on, to find new means of measurement to an industry gone nuts for market research?
'You have to credit Power for changing the way the industry thinks, but the usefulness of that stuff is past,' said George Peterson, president of rival consulting firm AutoPacific Group in Santa Ana, Calif., and a former Power analyst.
'It's no longer about widgets and lug nuts failing. It's about how well the car is thought out. How can you get any better? The room for product quality improvement is pretty slim. The future must find ways to have cars done better by having its features meet the needs of the customer,' Peterson said.
THINGS GONE RIGHT
Goodall agrees, to a point. He counters that Power is considering modifying its defect surveys to quantify the types of defects encountered, so that a balky transmission hits harder than does a leaky window.
But Goodall also recognizes the need for Power to provide new metrics for the next decade. Hence Power created the APEAL study, which stands for Automotive Performance Execution And Layout - also known as 'things gone right,' compared to Power's past 'things gone wrong' style of surveying.
Power will look at that sort of thinking for future studies, Goodall said.
'Most customers are satisfied, but not many are delighted. So how do you deliver more than their expectations, to give them a positive feeling and loyalty?' Goodall said.
Goodall said he thinks the surveys are still useful in pointing out who still has room to improve the most. The Big 3, Volkswagen, Mazda and Saab stand out to Goodall as automakers with room to improve.
'The problem is that those companies down below will find it difficult to make progress, partly because the low-hanging fruit of easy-to-fix practices have already been done. So now it involves more fundamental processes, which are harder to do with a small company and dealer body,' he said.
'If you're not selling well, it gets into how much money the dealer is making and how much service he will provide - and it gets into a downward spiral. Then you have to bite the bullet and lop off a chunk to remain viable.'
The Power APEAL survey is based on the same 'things gone right' methodology as a rival survey launched earlier by San Diego-based Strategic Vision Inc.
Strategic Vision Vice President Dan Gorrell said he feels that 'it's time to move on to the perception of quality and quality cues in the design and execution in the vehicles.'
Just the same, Gorrell said he feels that Power should not do away with its quality surveys yet. In fact, Strategic Vision just released its own survey on defects from a corporate-wide standpoint.
'There may be a tendency for 'things gone wrong' to re-emerge with this attention to cost savings, and the how and the where of cutting costs in your development. There will always be that pressure on cost, because cars cost too much, there are too many cars and too few buyers,' Gorrell said.