Asian automakers again dominated a recently released vehicle reliability study, grabbing 92 percent of the top spots in a survey of owners of vehicles up to 10 years old. Consumers Union, which authored the study, traced the superiority back to engineering design.
“Reliability and quality have to be designed in from the very beginning,” says David Champion, director of testing at Consumers Union's automotive test facility. “It's very difficult to take an unreliable car and make it reliable. It's much easier to do it right the first time.”
The organization's 2007 Used Car Study follows on the heels of a 2006 study in which 85 percent of its so-called “Good Bets” were Asian vehicles. This year's study, published in Consumer Reports magazine, tabbed 55 Asian vehicles out of the 59 total vehicles in its “Good Bets” category. The other four vehicles were all North American. In contrast, the study designated 38 “Bad Bets” models, of which 18 were North American, 16 were European and four were Asian.
To be sure, not all experts considered the results significant. “The truth is that manufacturers have decreased the difference between the best and the worst,” says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). “The difference may still be there on a relative basis, but the inconvenience related to those reliability concerns isn't as great as it used to be.”
Designed for Assembly
In reaching its conclusions, the study asked car owners to break down reliability by sub-systems. Respondents graded the performance of their engines, cooling systems, transmissions, fuel systems, electrical systems, climate controls, suspension, brakes, exhaust, paint, body integrity, body hardware and audio systems. Acura, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota dominated the results, receiving high grades in almost all the sub-system areas. By itself, Toyota put 15 models on the “Good Bets” list.
The results of the study were consistent with those of a similar study published by J.D. Power & Associates last August. In that study, Lexus and Toyota models had the highest ranking in four segments. Honda ranked highest in three.
Champion of Consumers Union attributes the success of Japanese models, such as Hondas, to good design. “Every aspect of each car is extremely well thought through,” he says. “You can lift the hood of a Honda and everything is beautifully laid out. They always use special clips where needed, not just cable ties.”
In his tear-downs of vehicles at Consumer Union's test facility, Champion says the best vehicles reveal consistent attention to assembly. “Often, the most reliable vehicles are easy to assemble and connectors are easy to see,” he says. “Those vehicles have designed-in features that make it easier for production workers to fully push home a connector. They go together with an audible click. The workers don't have to fight around four or five other things to finish their assembly.”
Surprisingly, Consumer Union's study found luxury nameplates didn't necessarily have higher reliability. Several prestigious nameplates — including Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar — fared poorly in the study. Champion rejects the arguments of those who insist those nameplates suffer because they incorporate more cutting- edge technology.
“The S-Class Mercedes and the 7 Series BMW probably have the same number of luxury features as a Lexus LS 430 or LS 460,” he says. “Blaming poor reliability on the fact that you have advanced technology is short-sighted.”
Cole of CAR argues that in many cases, the reliability difference between the top and bottom vehicles borders on being insignificant. At some point, he says, the thinking of automotive consumers begins to follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a classic theory of psychology that describes a person's definition of human needs. “Once you satisfy the universal needs, you can always find something that serves as a differentiator,” Cole says. “But in most people's minds, reliability isn't the differentiator it once was.”
Turning it Around
For automotive consumers, however, the question remains: Why do so many automakers languish at the bottom of such surveys year after year?
Some have argued Consumer Reports and J.D. Power, which made its name after Toyota hired it to do market research, are biased toward Asian vehicles. Champion argues, however, the Consumers Union reaches its conclusion by examining enormous data sets. Each rating, he says, is based on a minimum sample size of 100 responses; some are based on more than 3,000. In all, the organization received 1.3 million survey responses.
“We test every car in the same fashion and our reliability data comes from the owners of these cars,” he says. “We merely collect what they tell us.”
Studies conducted by CAR have repeatedly shown reliable vehicles are a result of design process focusing on assemblies, rather than on individual components. By building repeatable, imperfect parts, CAR researchers say, quality is improved. Most Japanese auto manufacturers currently employ such methods.
Champion adds, a history of good reliability is self-perpetuating. Good habits, from management on down, create a culture conducive to building better cars, he says. Some automotive managers, he says, set a primary goal of cutting costs and the long-term effect of such thinking is that reliability suffers.
“Manufacturers can always turn it around, but it usually takes five years or more to work the bugs out,” he says. “If quality is designed in at the beginning, it's much easier to keep those quality levels high.”