Last April, Ford issued a technical service bulletin to address problems with the MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch telematics systems in the 2011 Ford Edge and Explorer and Lincoln MKX.
The TSB was the culmination of Ford’s efforts to contain a quality issue that would lead to intense criticism from Consumer Reports and ultimately cost the company a high ranking in closely followed quality studies from J.D. Power and Associates.
The TSB, No. 11-4-18 in the United States, described for Ford technicians remedies for My Touch problems that had included blank screens, missing presets, lack of voice recognition, the incorrect dialling of phone numbers and display problems with the backup camera. The solution: reprogram the system.
Two months later, J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study (IQS) brought bad news for Ford based on the My Touch issues. An owner survey that tracks problems reported during the first 90 days of ownership saw both the Ford and Lincoln brands fall below the industry average of 107 problems reported per 100 models studied.
The Ford brand fell to No. 23 from No. 5 in 2010, the first time since the 2006 model year that the Ford brand had fared worse than the industry average. Lincoln dropped from 8th place in 2010 to 17th in 2001.
Power said Ford was hit by its complex infotainment features; they were causing discomfort among new users and there had been reports of the screens blanking out. A second emerging problem was found in fuel-saving power train refinements – and not just in Ford vehicles– that in certain instances were making automatic transmissions apparently hesitate when shifting gears and accelerating.
“Clearly, consumers are interested in having new technology in their vehicles, but auto makers must ensure that the technology is ready for prime time,” said David Sargent, vice-president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates, in releasing the IQS results in June.
Similarly, Ford's redesigned Explorer SUV found itself ranked 17th out of 19 models in its class when recently reviewed by Consumer Reports. CR found the Explorer's touch-screen controls “complicated and distracting.”
The good news for Ford: its new vehicles were not breaking down along the highway, leaving angry owners stranded and cursing and swearing never to buy another Ford.
The bad news: a key part of Ford's remarkable turnaround – so-called “smart technology” such as MyFord/MyLincoln Touch – had proved to be at the very least a short-term embarrassment. Ford's drive to become the mass market's leader for in-vehicle technology – technology Ford expects buyers to pay a premium to own – had hit a roadblock.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally has pushed the company to maintain industry-leading quality since arriving in 2006, maintaining that quality must be a pillar of the auto maker’s success after years of lagging behind Japanese rivals such as Toyota. While not brushing aside what bubbled up in the IQS and in CR’s reviews, Mulally has said Ford is on top of quality issue – including those associated with its infotainment systems.
“We have just a few issues with some of the newer technologies associated with Sync and MyFord Touch,” Mulally told Bloomberg, referring to the voice-activated and touch-screen communication system in models such as the Explorer. “It'll be a lot like consumer electronics where we’ll rapidly bring innovation, but also continue to improve it.”
Bennie Fowler, the auto maker’s group vice-president of quality and model introductions, told Bloomberg that new-model introductions from the Focus to the Fiesta small cars, along with the Explorer and others, stressed Ford's manufacturing and engineering systems.
“All I can tell you is I haven't been sleeping that much with the amount of products we've been bringing out,” Fowler said in a May 31 interview. “That is the biggest challenge I face as the quality leader and the new-model launch leader.”
The Ford story is hardly unique. Mercedes-Benz learned a similar lesson a decade ago when it overloaded E-Class models with pricey and complicated electronic controls that suffered from poor quality, recalls and consumer pushback, notes Automotive News.
BMW’s quality rankings also fell after it introduced a complicated communications system known as iDrive a decade ago, J.D. Power's Sargent told the publication. BMW has spent the last decade revising iDrive again and again, making it easier and less distracting to use.
“It is a risk to be a technology leader,” Sargent told Automotive News. “Even if the technology works as designed, consumers can feel frustrated by it and report problems with it because it’s not working the way they want it to. That’s a design flaw.”
The challenge for car makers is to manage thousands of potential quality problems in every vehicle sold. Consider the case of South Korea’s Hyundai. Under chairman Chung Mong-koo, Hyundai began a relentless drive to improve quality way back in 1999. Sweating the details has allowed Hyundai to transform its image from a laggard in quality and reliability to an industry leader in just over a decade. Lately, Hyundai has won top-tier recognition from J.D. Power and Associates, Consumer Reports and other third parties.
Yet consider the lengths to which Hyundai's best engineers have gone to address even the smallest quality issue. As Automotive News reports, customers from Australia were complaining that the printing on interior door trim items said to be inexplicably smearing like wet paint.
The culprit: a certain perfume brand was reacting with the ink-like solvent, causing it to smear. Even though Hyundai had heard of only two instances where this had happened, the company tested boxes of different perfumes to find the “offending fragrance that was acting like a solvent. Hyundai changed the ink formula and today still tests cars for reactions to perfumes.”
Nonetheless, despite the focus on quality, in 2011 Hyundai tumbled in the IQS, falling to No. 11 from No. 7 in 2010 and No. 4 in 2009. Hyundai explained the slip by noting the company had launched several new models over the past two years, including the Genesis Coupe, the Elantra compact and Sonata sedan. Still, Hyundai managed to crack the top 10 for the first time in Power's Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), another closely followed quality study.
From Ford to Hyundai, auto makers must now make sure their vehicles don't break down, while also addressing so-called “soft quality” issues and customer perception of quality, too. Perceived quality is largely a function of how vehicles feel to the touch, how components fit, how they look in terms of finish and how easy and intuitive controls are for customers to operate.
None of this is easy and every bit of it is vital. As the independent North American Quality Advisory Panel hired by Toyota to assess its problems noted in its May 23 report: “Design quality issues, and drivers’ complaints about them, will increasingly differentiate manufacturers in independent quality ratings.
“Avoiding these kinds of design problems is becoming more and more important to a vehicle's acceptability. Avoiding such design quality problems requires monitoring systems to not only hear customers’ voices but also to listen to them.”
That’s why for Globe Drive's look at the best-quality vehicles we considered the results of five separate quality studies – from J.D. Power's short-term IQS, to Power's three-year VDS, as well as the Total Quality Index from Strategic Vision, the so-called things gone right APEAL study from J.D. Power, and, of course, Consumer Reports.
To earn a nod on our list of best-quality vehicles, a model must be named among the leaders in at least two of the five studies – no small feat. Very few of the vehicles on our list got the nod in more than two studies, in fact.
So take note of the Honda Fit subcompact, which was a top pick in four studies, as were the Honda Ridgeline pickup, Honda Odyssey minivan and Ford F-150 pickup. These, if you believe the research, are the best of the best.