Big 3 aim to bridge ‘perception gap’ on quality

March 19, 2010

Big 3 aim to bridge ‘perception gap’ on quality


Fortunately, no one in Detroit says they plan on stepping off the accelerator when it comes to improving the quality of their cars and trucks.

Yes, there were some high marks in Thursday’s J.D. Power and Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study. The annual report is the gold standard for measuring durability and quality. While the Japanese have consistently ranked higher overall, this year, it was the Americans who stood out.

In fact, among the 10 best scoring vehicles — the ones with the fewest problems — seven of the first eight were American brands. A Cadillac, a Mercury and a Buick all bested the Lexus LS 460 — a perennial winner that could have had the award named after it.

But the study confirms what many Detroiters know: The Motor City builds good cars. Don’t take my word for it, talk to J.D.

There’s no letting up, however, and Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC know it. Even with good scores, consumers still don’t see American carmakers as the place to go for world-class quality. They’re wrong.

This is known as "the perception gap," which marks the difference between perceived quality and real quality. GM and Ford especially have been consistently pushing out high-grade Detroit iron. Dave Sargent, vice president of global research for J.D. Power, said it may take years for Detroit carmakers to reach the point when they’re finally recognized for the work they’re doing today.

"It takes a long time," he said. "What you need to do is firstly make sure all the cars you build are high quality."

Check. They are.

Great products are key

Bennie Fowler, group vice president of global quality at Ford, sounds a little annoyed when you mention "the gap."

"Ford Motor Co. has been a consistent improver," he said. "It is the right time for a customer to go back and experience a Ford."

I like that he’s annoyed. Ford sales have gone gangbusters this year, grabbing market share and outselling Toyota Motor Corp. and GM in February. Ford’s three brands bested the industry average for long-term durability and four of its cars were among the top eight vehicles. The Ford Five Hundred, the Lincoln MKZ and Mercury’s Milan and Montego were all top performers.

Talk about "the gap" can get tiresome.

I don’t know why the Ford Fusion, the sibling to the MKZ and Milan, wasn’t on the list. And there are other great products in Ford’s lineup.

The immediate future looks impressive. The Focus blew everyone’s doors off at the Detroit auto show, and the Fiesta looks just as great.

Ford uses a quality system so precise and fast it can find a problem at a dealership and four hours later have it addressed on a production line halfway around the world. Ford has been relentless when it comes to quality; it’s as if its life depends on it.

In case you weren’t here last summer, it does.

And so does GM’s.

"We have to prove (our quality) with great products," said Lori Cumming, executive director of global product development quality at GM. New vehicles show the company’s quality, hit after hit after hit.

Since 1994, GM has used a fleet-testing program that allows employees to act like customers and log thousands of miles and look for ways to improve the vehicle. Before the 2010 Chevy Equinox arrived last fall, employees had logged 4.5 million miles testing the small crossover.

Reliable cars do more than help a company’s reputation, Cumming said. They save money. Since 2007, the company’s internal warranty data shows it’s paying 45 percent less in warranty costs. Those are real dollars that GM keeps instead of paying out for repairs.

The Cadillac DTS was at the top of the list and Buick’s LaCrosse and Lucerne were there too, demonstrating GM’s continued improvement. And that’s the old LaCrosse wowing consumers; just wait until 2013 when the new LaCrosse knocks their socks off. My prediction: It takes a top 3 spot.

Hope for Chrysler

Even Chrysler, the media’s punching bag for quality, shows signs of hope.

No, it didn’t score well in the study, but it was selling 2007 models as Daimler-Chrysler. So holding steady year-over-year is not bad. Face it, no one was investing in Chrysler’s future, and it’s still here.

"As a company, our results are essentially flat compared to last year," said Doug Betts, senior vice president of quality at Chrysler. "As more than 75 percent of our product line changes by the end of the year, we look forward to demonstrating the numerous quality advancements we’ve integrated into the design, development and building of all Chrysler Group vehicles."

Even J.D. Power’s Sargent said he thinks Chrysler’s vehicles will get better.

"I think Chrysler will turn things around," he said. "They are as committed and working hard to improve quality. They will get there. For the last 10 years, no one has been investing in (improving quality)."

And even as Chrysler improves, it will have to deal with "the gap."

It’s a long road.

So when does it end?

It can take up to a decade before reality and perception finally meet, experts say.

James Bell, an industry analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said the real measure for consumers is when they buy a car because it’s the car they want, not the car they can afford.

"It’s when there’s a pride in the vehicle," Bell said.

People fill "the gap" through those little conversations every day when they talk about their new car and take friends out into the driveway to show it off, Bell said. That takes time, but he noted that Detroit is getting better, at a dramatic speed.

Of course, so is every one else, Bell said.

"Hyundai has done a remarkable job improving its quality and people are really starting to take notice."

Just another reason, no one in Detroit should let off the gas. Reputations take years to build and minutes to lose.

Additional Facts

Fewest problems

Here are the vehicles with the fewest problems, in order of ranking, according to the J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study. All vehicles are 2007 models.
1. Cadillac DTS
2. Mercury Montego
3. Buick LaCrosse
4. Lexus LS 460
5. Buick Lucerne
6. Ford Five Hundred
7. Mercury Milan
8. Lincoln MKZ
9. Lexus GX 470
10. Audi A6
10. Honda Accord
10. Toyota Prius
(Note: The A6, Accord and Prius tied for 10th)

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