My kids have had the good fortune of never riding in a really bad car. Even the used Carolla we owned years ago was very reliable. My parents worked through their share of crappy cars from the Vega with an unreliable engine block to the Fury III that was prone to stalling just as it was hitting the entrance ramp to the highway. But as NPR reports, my kids may never know a true lemon (U.S. Automakers Aim To Eliminate Lemons, Apr 3).
[Reporter TRACY] SAMILTON: The trucks built in this Detroit factory are getting high marks from outside rating groups. But a similar turnaround is happening pretty much everywhere, with just about every car company. Quality, once largely the domain of Toyota and Honda, is now simply the price of entry.
Jesse Toprak is an analyst with TrueCar.com.
JESSE TOPRAK: So you go to any dealership today, buy any new car in the U.S. dealerships, you’re not going to get a clunker that’s going to fall apart on you.
SAMILTON: Toprak says quality has been rising for at least 20 years, and the gap between the best and worst is shrinking.
The claim about the convergence in the quality of US and import brands is shown by this graph of the well-known J.D. Power study of initial vehicle quality:
So how are carmakers pulling this off? The Wall Street Journal offers a little bit of information on just what Chrysler is doing at their Belvidere plant (Chrysler Invests to Boost Quality, Apr 2).Belvidere gets to build the new Dodge Dart, a compact car that will be the first Chrysler built on a Fiat platform. (I must confess that I don’t remember my grandmother’s Dodge Dart as being that compact.) To make sure the launch goes well, the company has spent $20 million to boost the plant’s quality.
The auto maker created a Center for Technical Vehicle Validation within the Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant that is home to the Dart, the Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot. It plans to replicate the center, which will examine about 20 vehicles a day, at its U.S., Canadian and Mexican assembly plants. …
Chrysler is attempting to lift the company’s overall image since some of its brands have consistently finished in the lower end of national automotive quality rankings.
“We are trying to drive a culture change,” [Chrysler’s quality chief Doug] Betts said. “Before we tried to downplay problems, because who wants them ending up in your lap. Now if you point out a problem we shake your hand, say thank you and fix it.”
About 10 workers inside the center randomly audits newly-built vehicles and measure 437 different potential problem areas such as fit-and-finish, heating and air conditioning performance and ride. A new materials laboratory, staffed with an on-site chemist, allows the plant to identify emerging issues. …
The quality controls aren’t new to the auto industry. However, Mr. Betts said that under the Fiat ownership, this is the first time Chrysler has bolstered and expanded its quality controls throughout its manufacturing plants. “We had been on a financial diet for such a long time,” Mr. Betts said.
So what does this all mean? The NPR story suggests that you basically can’t go wrong with respect to quality in buying a new car. The chance that you end up with something that proves to be unreliable in the first few years is pretty slim (although there are apparently still differences in brands over longer time frames).
If everyone can deliver a high quality car, then competition has to move on to something else — whether that’s fuel efficiency or aesthetics or luxurious appointments. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Some of these alternative dimensions are easy to copy. If one firm proves that customers love some technical feature, it is easy enough for another firm to also add it. Others can prove fleeting. A design hit this year may look dated next year and be a total dud in its next redesign. Quality at least has had some legs. It has taken other firms years to catch up to Toyota and Honda. One wonder whether if going forward there will be more turnover at the top of the industry in the next decade.