For some reason this conversation pits reliability against innovation, as if there should be a clear winner. Some facts to consider;
Some markets favor reliability (Japan) and others innovation (Europe), with the US leaning to reliability (at the moment, at least). A "good design" is one that meets the customer's needs and expectations, so know your intended market. A customer base that favors cutting-edge technology and prestige over reliability is about the only way to explain the BMW 7, in my opinion, but it exists nonetheless.
The JD Power surveys and Consumer Reports weigh reiliability heavily in their ratings because, really, who is against reliability?
Innovation gets a bad name when it is introduced in a poor implementation and you are beta-testing using the customer.
Here's some input from my direct experience with car mfrs on both sides of the Pacific. Some years ago I was told by a senior Toyota executive that "we will not introduce a new technology until we are losing market share because we don't have it." On the other hand, Honda was much more willing to innovate, but insisted on full demonstration of product reliability before they would offer it as a main-stream standard offering. I am also aware of one NA-based manufacturer who canceled an entire new global vehicle platform development because the BOM cost exceeded their target by less than $25! And THAT was after brow-beating all suppliers into slashing their quoted prices to effectively zero (or even negative) margins. That's a fair summary of the differences!
Here's one theory from a few years back about why Japanese cars are more reliable. In essence, it says that the Japanese carmakers care more about a perfect assembly than a perfect part. American automakers, on the other hand, assume that perfects parts make for a perfect assembly.
My opinion is that some American firms incorrectly think that their market consists of people who want cheap over quality, and their engineering is focused on that goal. I frequently think of one example from a colleague who worked at a big 3 company (AB3C). He told me at AB3C they were testing fuel injectors. The purpose of the test was to find the manufacturer who made the cheapest injector which just barely passed the 100,000 mile equivalent test. He told me that one supplier's injector lasted over 2x that mark, but it was 5 cents more expensive. The business model at AB3C, formed from the attitude that Americans want cheap cheap cheap instead of quality, led to the decision to use the cheap part instead of the quality part. I personally know only a tiny fraction of the 300 million Americans but, the ones I do know always want reliable cars, not cheap ones. Who is this market group of people who want cheap over quality?
On another note, new innovation does have an "unknown consequences" factor, as shown by the post about residue build up in the direct-inject system, but more extensive testing (a foundation of good engineering) would have uncovered that.
@Dave: I'm not sure where I stand on this matter. Over the past 25 years, I've heard at least half a dozen explanations as to why Japanese cars are more reliable. But I did ask Consumer Reports the exact same question you asked about the Prius. Their response: "Toyota has its Prius now, but they started it as a low-volume vehicle and launched it in Japan only. Only now, more than 10 years in, are we starting to see a proliferatoion of similar powertrains. But even so, the Hybrid Synergy Drive is pretty similar to what we've seen over the past 10 years."
Consumer Reports gives five ratings: Much better than average; better than average; average, worse than average; much worse than average. The photos shown in our slideshow (with one exception) fall in the top or bottom categories.
"Much better than average" vehicles in our slideshow: Toyota RAV4; Nissan Leaf; Honda CR-V; Toyota Prius; Honda Fit; Toyota Camry Hybrid; Lexus CT 200h; Toyota 4Runner.
"Much worse than average" vehicles in our slideshow: Ford Focus; BMW 7 Series; Chrysler 300; Volkswagen Beetle; Dodge Grand Caravan; Nissan Armada; Ford Edge; Buick LaCrosse; Ford Explorer V-6 4WD.
The one exception in our slideshow was the Cadillac CTS. We posted it because it was the highest-rated American car. Even so, it did not make the top category. Consumer Reports rated it "better than average."
My sister traded in her Honda. She bought it used and drove it for 23 years with no problems. She traded it in, not because there was a problem, just on principle and because the local Honda dealer had an equivalent demonstrater and was willing to go low in order to get his hands on a 26 year old all-original collector's item which still runs fine at age 33.
Interestingly, the Japanese spend less time on developing new cars; as it turns out, a lot less than the car maker I hate the most and will never patronize again. It comes from incorporating quality systems into the design process and respect for age - gray haired engineers who mentor the design team. In design, no matter how clever, lessons learned are so important.
Direct injection is a recent innovation that i have noticed was lagging with Honda/Acura brands. I believe their 2013 offerings are finally getting on the band wagon. This type of fuel injection was shown a fuel economiy advantage. I see them as "a slow adopter until the bugs are worked out" type of design for production philosophy. I have recently learned that some manufacturers are having problems with carbon build up in the intake as a result of using direct injection. You see, fuel dilevery in the intake manifold has the side benefit of washing away contaminants in the passage. Direct delivery to the coimbustion chamber looses that aid. BMW has seen recent development in this area. Non turbo E90 (i.e. 328i) does not see this issue but the turbod 335i does. It is related to vaporized oil coming from the EGR system feeding into the intake system. I would emphasize that not all direct injected engines are seeing this carbon buildup in the intake.
Perhaps the asians are quite aware of the technology but want its technical readiness level to be close to 10 before using it in production design. Look for this as a growing problem with the early adopters. I hear Mercedes does not have this issue though. Does anyone know iof Lexus uses DI?
The 100% solar-powered airplane Solar Impulse 2 is prepping for its upcoming flight, becoming the first plane to fly around the world without using fuel. It's able to do so because of above-average performance by all of the technologies that go into it, especially materials.
With major product releases coming from big names like Sony, Microsoft, and Samsung, and big investments by companies like Facebook, 2015 could be the year that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) finally pop. Here's take a look back at some of the technologies that got us here (for better and worse).
Good engineering designs are those that work in the real world; bad designs are those that don’t. If we agree to set our egos aside and let the real world be our guide, we can resolve nearly any disagreement.
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