David Champion, long-time head of auto testing at Consumer Reports, is rejoining Nissan, but not before saluting the improvements the Chrysler Group has made in one of its most important products – the made-in-Canada 300.
Champion, the likable Brit who worked as a quality assurance engineer at Nissan from 1994 to 1997, is moving to shore up lagging Nissan quality in a newly created position with the title of executive adviser, competitive assessment and quality. This is a coup for Nissan. The Nissan brand ranks below average in the latest long-term J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study. Worse, Nissan’s Infiniti premium brand is ranked even lower than the Nissan brand in the same study.
Late last year, Automotive News reported that Nissan officials, stung by slumping quality scores, would overhaul quality control. Nissan said it would focus on two areas where its products trail the competition: perceived quality and soft quality. The latter refers to customer perception of quality through touch and feel, fit and finish and intuitive controls.
At Consumer Reports, of course, Champion has spent years overseeing the sort of testing which puts great emphasis on quality issues and safety concerns. Nissan, in the early stages of launching five new vehicles in 15 months, is pushing hard to improve the real and perceived quality of its latest models as the company pushes to overtake Honda in sales across North America.
Champion will join Nissan in September. In what seems to be his last act as auto testing head at CR, Champion had high praise for the improvements in not a Nissan vehicle, but one from the Chrysler Group.
“The 2011 redesign of the 300 put Chrysler’s flagship back on the map in the large sedan category. Though the muscular V-8-powered 300C delivers more oomph, most buyers will probably be quite happy with the V-6 engine, which contributes to its refined character and helps it score near the top of its category,” said Champion in reviewing the results from a new batch of tests pitting large sedans against each other.
The Chrysler 300 V-6 earned an 83 test score in CR’s ratings. It is “near” the top of its class, though still below the Hyundai Genesis. Key to the improvements in the 300 is a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission paired with the V-6. CR says that has improved drivability and helped the large sedan get decent fuel economy.
Champion also oversaw the recent testing of three other large sedans – the redesigned Hyundai Azera (not sold in Canada), the Buick LaCrosse equipped with GM’s eAssist mild-hybrid system, and the freshened Ford Taurus. CR found the LaCrosse to be quiet, luxurious, and economical, while the updated Taurus “suffers from a relatively cramped interior, limited visibility and complex controls.”
In snapping up Champion, who appears to be near the end of his career, Nissan is getting a quality control engineer whose focus has not been solely on one company’s products. Instead, Champion is well familiar with vehicles of all sorts from a wide cross section of auto makers. This could prove decisive for Nissan’s quality efforts. Nissan has made a very smart move here.