Automakers have substantially improved vehicle quality, but they must expand and intensify efforts because consumer perceptions of quality are changing.
From the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, it's clear that quality expectations are rising. Most reported problems weren't actual defects, but instead design-related: things difficult to understand or to use.
Power has included design problems in the IQS survey since 2007, but 2012 was the first time the design problems outnumbered defects. This year it's almost two-thirds design woes.
That's important because quality problems generally rise for new products and features. And manufacturers are speeding the introduction pace of new models and electronic features.
Power researchers say people expect cars to be like smartphones: so intuitive they can skip the instructions. Auto buyers won't read the manual, says Power quality guru David Sargent, but will blame the maker if they don't understand a feature.
Automakers are slowly adapting. Most require salespeople to explain new features fully at delivery. After asking Power about complaints, Volkswagen swapped European-style seat adjusters and climate controls for ones more familiar to Americans. General Motors holds product clinics earlier in the design process to ensure consumers like new controls and displays.
Automakers must keep fighting flaws while also being more flexible to meet customers' evolving sense of quality.