Often it’s hogwash.
In the late Seventies, when Honda introduced its Accord sedan and Prelude, the company’s cars were not without engineering flaws. True, its vehicles’ fit and finish put Detroit’s to shame, particularly since the Big Three were still shipping vehicles with massive paint runs as a no-charge option. But even a perfect paint job doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a vehicle won’t have any problems, does it?
In Honda’s case, a fender design problem allowed water to accumulate and cause rust, which in time became a recall issue. But additionally, on some of the Accords sold in most of the country, those little inline four-cylinder engines could develop a bad hesitation during acceleration.
It was weird because, typically, an engine issue is found either in one certain production run or across the board in a given model year. But not this one: No, those Accords’ hesitation problem was rare — maybe one in a hundred. And the fix was even stranger: Honda told its dealers to use the carburetor designed for its vehicles sold in California, and that should correct the problem. It did. I still wonder whether that fix was legal. Neither issue dented Honda’s then growing reputation in the least.
Fast forward a few decades to the other extreme. When the Hummer H2 debuted, it was slammed in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey the following year. Now, this survey had been designed to show how many defects or problems arose in the first few months of ownership for any given car line. One might think this was the Power organization’s way of spotlighting many car companies’ poor engineering and assembly production records, but no. The automakers pushed any poor showings onto their dealers’ backs, claiming that they should have caught those factory mistakes before the customer took delivery.
Back to the Hummer H2 that did not do well in its first J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey: Two of the top complaints against the Hummer that year were that it got poor gas mileage and its headlight beams were set too high. Of course, neither of those issues has anything to do with vehicle quality whatsoever.
First, anyone who purchased a new Hummer H2 and was shocked to find it didn’t get 56 mpg on the highway, like the Prius hybrid they traded in, should be starring in a competency hearing. As for those headlights? It’s a truck-based vehicle, so those front beams are much higher off the ground. Doubt that? Well, remember when you were last driving down the road at night and a truck pulled up behind you, and it seemed as if its headlights were as high as your inside rearview mirror? That’s the point: It was a truck.
Maybe a year ago, a listener e-mailed me asking that I quit praising the so-called quality of a certain popular high-end luxury sedan. He enclosed a laundry list of the major and minor repairs his vehicle had needed, and it was lengthy. Shockingly so. I called a friend who owned one and asked if he’d had similar problems, and every last complaint had happened to him, too.
So I went over to a local dealership to talk to the GM, and he too validated every last one of those complaints; each had happened to not just nearly all but most of his customers who had purchased one. I’m talking major problems here. Yet, when the quality surveys come out, both short and long term, not only is that manufacturer considered one of the best for vehicle quality, but that specific luxury car is ranked as one of the most trouble-free sold in America.
Therein lies the problem with these surveys. Forty years ago no one pounded Hondas when they had major problems to be resolved. Yet Hummer got slammed for things that weren’t even defects, while top-of-the-list honors went to a luxury sedan that had so many things wrong with it that it boggled even my mind. Yet that vehicle got a clean bill of health when it came time to fill out the survey on quality.
Next week: Why people can easily love problematical cars and how Detroit is about to make things worse.
© Ed Wallace 2016
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.