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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 22, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    The power of Power

    Neil Briscoe

    So it turns out my dad was right all along. You know how it goes. You rock up at home with some shiny new set of wheels and begin to demonstrate to your old man what all the various buttons and touchscreens do. Proud of your new purchase, you turn to dear old dad for some fatherly approval and a bit of manly hugging. Instead he just glares at some supposedly innocent button controlling some supposedly benign electronic function. “Humph” he will say. “It’s just more stuff to go wrong…”

    Grouchy he may be, but right with that sentiment my dad most certainly is, and he’s now being back up by the might of JD Power, the vast US-based consumer agency which every year takes the pulse of the car market to see how satisfied owners are with their vehicles and which of those vehicles are the best bolted together.

    This year, in the Initital Quality Survey (IQS), which monitors the happiness of owners of 2009 model year cars, up to 90 days after buying. Three brands came out as clear winners. Lexus came top of the survey, with an average score of 73 problems per 100 cars (PP100) while Porsche and Jaguar came joint second, with a score of 75PP100. Porsche’s 997-series 911 was the best single model, with a reported 44PP100.

    That Porsche and Lexus came out well would hardly come as a surprise, but Jaguar is certainly confounding some old stereotypes. Not only did it improve on its previous score, wiping out a whopping 39PP100 from its rating, but this is from a firm that, just over two decades ago, was reckoned to lag behind even Lada in terms of build quality and reliability.

    Now, before you get all excited, please remember that these results are from the US, and based on models sold there, so they don’t necessarily translate across to our market. Nonetheless, Mark Teevan from Lexus Ireland pronounced himself well and truly happy with the outcome: “We are obviously delighted with the results from the JD power survey, and while it does relate to the US market, the core values of our brand such as exceptional build quality & reliability, and delivering an outstanding customer experience apply to markets outside America, including Ireland. Therefore, I believe the overall position of Lexus in these results is reflective of the where the brand sits in our market.”

    It’s certainly added kudos for a marque already garlanded with many awards for its quality of build and construction. But what about the other end of the table? Fiat, which has only just returned to the US market, with a single model (the 500 Abarth) did badly, coming joint bottom of the survey with Smart with a ranking of 151PP100. Would such a ruling be damaging to the brand here in Ireland?

    “I honestly have no idea what proportion of Irish car buyers are aware of the work JD Power does” said Conor Twomey, communications manager for Fiat in Ireland. “Those that do would probably be more interested in its U.K. surveys than those conducted in America. Surveys conducted in other countries need to be approached cautiously, however, because so much more than just the vehicle is taken into consideration and buyers in other markets have different needs and expectations. In any case, the American market is very different to that of Ireland and the Fiat 500 sold in the U.S., while visually similar, is actually a very different machine to the version sold here  – it’s built in a different factory on a different continent!

    “Quality and reliability are hugely important factors in people’s purchase decisions. That’s why we introduced a five-year warranty on all Fiat and Alfa Romeo vehicles: Not only does that assure people of the quality of our vehicles and set their minds at ease, it allows them to focus on the aspects of the cars that matter to them, be that practicalities such as the purchase price, fuel economy, as CO2 emissions or the subjective areas of appearance, cabin ambience or driving dynamics.”

    That said, Fiat (and its partners at Chrysler) clearly take the likes of JD Power and direct customer feedback seriously, even to the point of tweaking vehicle design off the back of such reports. Doug Betts, senior vice president in charge of quality for Chrysler told us that “we value customer feedback, including IQS, and use it continuously to improve our products. For example, Fiat vehicles are getting updated instrument panel and steering wheel graphics to make the controls more intuitive for North American customers.”

    Mark Teevan reckons that it would be useful for Irish car buyers if JD Power were to extend its reach over here: “We would love to see a JD Power or similar survey taking place in the Irish market. I think it would be very beneficial for prospective customers to see how manufacturers and their products perform at a local level, and I believe Lexus’ position in international surveys would be mirrored in Ireland”

    Certainly, the Irish market would present a unique model mix and some pretty unique driving conditions, not necessarily mirrored in the UK. And given Irish buyers’ traditional reluctance to (and enragement at if they have to) spend money maintaining their cars, a marque with a high JD Power rating could well be in the pound seats. No little part of Toyota’s massive success in Ireland (compare its dominant Irish position to its lowly market share in the UK) is down to its legendary reliability and strength, recalls be damned.

    But back to my dad. You see, it turns out that a lot of the complaints JD Power has been hearing from car buyers and owners is not to do with major mechanical items like engines and transmissions, but smaller, fiddly items like in-car entertainment, sat-navs and the like. And much of the rise in complaints is down to the fact that more and more affordable cars are now being fitted with such items. “Until recently, this type of sophisticated technology was found primarily on high-end models” said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. “However, over the past few years it has rapidly found its way into the automotive mainstream. For example, in 2012, more than 80 percent of owners indicate that their new vehicle has some form of hands-free technology.”

    So dad, you really were right. It is just something else to go wrong.

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