The takeaway from today's release of the J.D. Power and Associates 2013 Initial Quality Study is this: car companies must make technology simple enough for a five-year-old or a 55-year-old to operate. Or face the wrath of consumers.
Auto makers, said J.D. Power vice-president David Sargent, have largely won the dependability battles, and what does go wrong is usually fixed quickly at any dealership. But they are "struggling to bring it (technology) to the marketplace in a way consumers find easy to operate." The author of the IQS added that, "this technology issue is one that really is a problem for the industry." Problems with technology, difficulties designed into gizmos, gadgets and electronic systems in general, are "the thing consumers are complaining about the most."
The timing of this new study fits in nicely with my story in Globe Drive this week. The connected car, the technology-laden ride of 2013, is interesting, sometimes useful and often demanded by buyers. But, as I write in tomorrow's paper, "The trick with the connected car is to balance driver safety with functionality and user-friendliness – a three-legged stool. Not easy."
Failing to do so puts car companies in an uneasy position. What's really scary for the auto makers, and what stands out as a clear warning to consumers, is that in 2013, technology problems are designed into a vehicle from the outset. Car makers usually take 36-40 months to develop a new model, so problems that show up in the 2013 IQS were first considered, or overlooked, in 2010 or 2009.
This brings me to Ford Motor, which again this year was at the bottom end of the IQS – 27th out of 33 ranked brands. At the depth of its problems, in 2008-ish when Ford was losing billions and reinventing itself on borrowed money, Ford's product developers settled on four pillars for all future models: Quality, Green, Safe and Smart. That's when things started to go both right and wrong at Ford.
In the early part of Ford's renaissance, Ford was saddled with an old lineup, thus all the company could do on the quality front was refine old models by keeping knobs from falling off and so forth. Ford did a magnificent job of it, too. In the 2010 IQS, Ford was ranked 5th overall, ahead of Honda and behind only Porsche, Acura, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. The "old" Focus was the top-ranked compact car, the Mustang was No. 1 among mid-size sporty cars, and the "old" Taurus was the best large car.
Since then, Ford has totally reinvented the Focus, making it a so-called "global" car, and one with plenty of baked-in technology. The new Focus is a delight to drive and Ford's profit margins are brilliant because technology sells for a higher price. That's the good news.
Now the bad. The Focus is nowhere to be found among the top three in its class. Ditto for the Taurus. The Mustang, an old design with very little fancy technology, however, is tied for second place in its class. What's new from Ford is selling well and at rich profit margins, though not all consumers find Ford's designed-in technology easy to use.
Consider what the IQS represents: feedback from consumers about their "quality" experiences during the first 90 days of ownership. That's time when first impressions are powerful, buyer's remorse runs strongest and new features are the most complicated for a new owner. I mention this because in J.D. Power's long-term Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), owners who have been living with their Fords for three years seem pretty happy: in the latest, the Lincoln brand is ranked No. 7 and the Ford brand No. 8.
Now back to Ford's four pillars on which all new models are based: Quality, Green, Safe and Smart. When Ford's cars started to get "smart," when Ford started designing them with fancy technology, Ford's IQS scores plummeted. Consumer Reports, too, has criticized Ford heavily for devices like the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch infotainment system – that it's decidedly not user friendly. But over time, the VQS suggests that owners think their Fords are quite dependable.
When it comes to the IQS, J.D. Power's Sargent says Ford is by no means alone. Sixty-four per cent of the problems reported in the IQS "are design problems," he said, adding, "It's not that the component is failing; it's just that it's been poorly designed in the first place."
Complicated technology frustrates buyers because it often cannot be fixed easily and it can almost never be fixed at the dealership on the very first visit and sometimes never: only 13 per cent of customers reporting a design-related problem saw it solved on the first visit. A manufacturing flaw, on the other hand, was fixed on the first visit 43 per cent of the time.
This 2013 model year is stuffed with vehicles boasting fancy technologies. As it turns out, all-new 2013 models have 21 per cent more problems than vehicles carried over unchanged from 2012.
"The technology issue is really a very difficult one for the industry," said Sargent. It will continue to challenge auto makers, too, because consumers increasingly demand "smart" cars.
Of Detroit's auto makers, Ford has largely reinvented its lineup over the last three years and has clearly suffered the consequences of going "smart" in an industry-leading way. Ford's challenge now is to address the design-related issues that have dragged down its IQS scores for the last couple of years – mostly around infotainment systems.
This brings us to General Motors.
"GM has the best quality of any corporation in the study, the first time it's been on top," said Sargent of the 2013 IQS. "And GMC and Chevrolet have never finished in the top five before." Very nice, and achieved mostly with an aging lineup. In that way, GM's position today is very similar to Ford's in 2010.
But over the next 18 months or so, 70 per cent of GM's models will be completely reinvented or seriously refreshed. GM is stuffing a lot of new technology into its all-new vehicles – from the CUE system in new Cadillacs to MyLink in new Chevrolets to a whole lineup of completely new engines in the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra pickups and so on.
Here's a healthy and loud round of applause for GM's 2013 IQS results. Besting the world's auto makers is a huge, huge achievement. And here, also, is a question: will GM still be on top in 2014 and 2015 when all the new models have been introduced in the same wholesale manner done at Ford over the past few years?