Dave Sargent talks IQS of the past, present, and future
When was the last time you worried about your new car breaking down on the side of the road? Probably not during this decade. The rising excellence of new cars has left J.D. Power in a peculiar situation when it comes to its Initial Quality Study, now in its 31st year of running. The definition of “quality” seems to expand over the years as owners report new kinds of issues. The study has reported major improvements in new-car quality across the industry, particularly among domestic automakers, and now, consumers worry less about mechanical problems and more about their phones pairing to their cars.
Dave Sargent has been with J.D. Power since 1992, and now that he’s vice president of Global Automotive, he oversees all of the company’s vehicle quality research. And one thing that has impressed him most about the study over the years is the noticeable increase in quality.
“The fact that the average vehicle has about 30,000 individual components on it and how few of them actually go wrong, thinking back, is surprising,” said Sargent, ruminating on his experience with IQS throughout the years. “It is remarkable how well the industry has done over this time period to keep on improving the quality of the vehicles most years at the same time adding more and more things all of which have the possibility of going wrong.”
This year’s study, released today, continues the trend of improvement. New-vehicle quality is at its highest level ever, improving 8 percent from last year, the most since 2009. The speed of improvement was quicker than even J.D. Power expected. The annual study counts the number of consumer-reported problems per 100 vehicles during the first 90 days of ownership, so a lower score signals better quality.
After third place-winning Porsche, Ford and Ram were tied for fourth. While Ram made more traditional quality improvements in the areas of design and vehicle assembly, Ford moved up predominately because of its more user-friendly technology, specifically the new Sync 3 infotainment system.
“They [Ford] were early to market with some of these more sophisticated systems, and they had some challenges. Now they’re actually one of the leaders in the industry in terms of how simple the systems are to use and how well they do their jobs. So they’ve come a long way in a short space of time,” Sargent notes.
For the second year in a row, but only for the third time since the study first came out in 1987, Detroit automakers actually performed better than import brands. Overall, 27 of the 33 brands in the study improved their quality from last year. Key winners in their segments include the Kia Sorento, Kia Soul, Chevrolet Silverado, Chrysler Pacifica, Ford Expedition, Ford Mustang, Porsche 911, and Toyota Camry.
These days, there are enough car awards, studies, and surveys to make your head spin. J.D. Power conducts a variety of studies, but IQS stands out for its ability to give consumers quick feedback about the quality of new model-year vehicles. The automaker also puts out a Vehicle Dependability Study that looks at the ownership experience after three years, but consumers don’t want to wait that long to find out about the quality of, say, the new Chevrolet Bolt. And an automaker’s performance in initial quality is strongly correlated with its performance in the long-term, J.D. Power contends.
The study is not only meant to help consumers, but it’s also important for many automakers. “It’s certainly the most watched survey that we do,” said Sargent. “[Automakers] take it very, very seriously, [and] many of them have it in their performance targets for the year… I’ve never known a research study to have such an impact on an industry as IQS does on this one.”
Domestic automakers in particular take great care in working toward a higher score in the study, an effort that has proven fruitful in recent years. Meanwhile, the study has motivated Kia to make big improvements. J.D. Power has worked with the automaker closely over the last few years to help it understand what consumers want. Sargent said J.D. Power has probably done more work with Hyundai/Kia than any other automaker. “They place a greater focus on initial quality than possibly any other company I’ve known.”
“Hyundai and Kia as a company have placed an extreme amount of focus on how they launch vehicles,” Sargent elaborates. “Before they put pen to paper, designing vehicles with their end consumer in mind, making sure they don’t put things in their vehicles that customers aren’t going to like, and really taking the voice of the customer and sort of inserting it at all stages of the design and development process.”
Despite technology changing the game, Porsche has consistently performed well. On the other end of the spectrum as Kia, Porsche is able to charge customers more and offer better materials as a niche, high-end brand. It’s also at an advantage in the industry because it offers the same vehicles around the globe rather than making different vehicles for different markets. The smaller the lineup, the fewer opportunities for mistakes.
But being a smaller, niche brand can also hurt your chances. Fiat, which has performed poorly in the study, often receives complaints about interior design. Because many of their customers are new to the brand, people struggle getting used to their new vehicles and the location of the controls. Many brands, including Toyota, have repeat customers that are already familiar with the brand and the way the cars work, so customers typically report fewer problems. “Because even if they are inherently designed poorly, customers got used to it over the last three years of owning a previous generation so they kind of know what they’re in for. New brands to the market always tend to struggle a little bit because this issue that often they’re designed for a different part of the world predominately, and secondly, they only have new customers,” Sargent said.
Volvo and Jaguar ranked at the bottom of this year’s list, also suffering from the problem of attracting so many new customers. Jaguar just launched the XE and F-Pace, which together make up the bulk of the brand’s sales. Meanwhile, Volvo launched the new S90 and V90. It’s not uncommon for automakers to fluctuate in the rankings due to the life cycles of their vehicles. Historically, automakers that launch many new vehicles will likely not perform especially well that year, Sargent notes. After all, new cars can have teething issues.
While premium vehicles and midsize sedans have historically performed well, sports cars and very small cars have had the most challenges. Minivans have improved over the years, but they have a rough life and they’re harder to build than sedans, which translates to historically lower ratings. Meanwhile, pickup trucks are now performing much better than they used to.
There is no shortage of critics questioning the merit of IQS. Some say 90 days is not enough time to determine a car’s quality, while others complain the study gives the same weight to problems big and small, from major mechanical issues to minor tech and trim squabbles. To the latter point, J.D. Power notes so few mechanical problems exist that if they were the only problems counted, there would be little quality difference between automakers. Also, consumers are ranking these seemingly little issues as big problems, more so than traditional quality issues such as a trim piece falling off a vehicle, something that can be easily repaired by a single trip to the dealership.
“If you’ve got a voice recognition system that doesn’t understand you or your car will never pair to your phone by Bluetooth or the navigation system is crazy complex or the air conditioning system doesn’t get cold enough fast enough, so all these things that people consider to really not be quality problems but are more design related, those can’t be fixed for the most part,” he said. “And so the customer realizes that they’re going to have those for the rest of their ownership of the vehicle.”
In the 2017 study, consumers reported the most problems in the field of audio, communication, entertainment, and navigation. However, the industry made progress in this area compared to last year. Meanwhile, the largest increases in reported problems came from cruise control, lane departure warning, collision avoidance and alert systems, and blind spot warning—all features that are considered precursors to autonomous cars.
Sargent expects to see continued improvement in initial quality over the next several years. Later down the line, bona fide autonomous vehicles could usher in a new wave of changes for IQS.
“Autonomous will clearly have a massive impact because the whole relationship between someone and their car changes, different things become important,” he notes. “Quality is still very important, clearly, it’s just the things that matter to people will be different so you know things like how the vehicle performs, handles, and brakes and that type of thing will probably become a little less important. But then things like the interior features of the vehicle probably will become more important because you’re not driving so what are you going to do? You might have a massive wide-screen TV in your car or something, well then, that becomes part of the quality metric.
And then sort of overriding all of this is how customers feel about the actual autonomous nature of the vehicle. If customers start to report problems with that aspect of the vehicle, then the industry, or at least the manufacturers of those vehicles are in sort of serious trouble because if you lose the trust of consumers because the autonomous aspects of the vehicle aren’t working the way they should, that’s a pretty big deal.”
Ride-sharing may also add layers of intricacy to future studies. Instead of asking consumers to share their opinions about one vehicle, the study may prompt them to rate multiple vehicles and compare them. When there is a big fleet of ride-sharing vehicles on the road, drivers working for Uber or other services could provide feedback about their vehicles in the survey.
“One of the great things about this industry is it’s constantly evolving, but most of these evolutions don’t happen like overnight so it’s not like we’re going to be surprised [and] wake up one morning and suddenly realize that IQS isn’t relevant anymore. Basically these trends, you can sort of see them coming. So we’ll be ready for those.”