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5 Car Quality Myths, Busted

5 Car Quality Myths, Busted

By Ethan West, October 16, 2015


In today’s world, perception seems to become reality. What people believe or perceive to be true is, quite often, accepted as truth or reality, whether or not the facts (or, in this case, research data) support that belief or perception. One area where the perception vs. reality issue is most prevalent is in the automotive industry. Thankfully, we’re here to set the record straight. Following are five car quality myths that are just that: myths.

2015 Kia K900 photo1. Korean Cars Have Poor Quality
Hyundai and Kia have been selling cars in the United States for over 20 years now. Both brands entered the U.S. marketplace positioning their cars with a strong value proposition but offering little in the way of quality and reliability. Over the years, however, both brands’ vehicles have matured in every way, offering more exciting styling, attractive interiors, more features, and making large leaps in quality. It wasn’t until about five years ago that both Hyundai and Kia took another substantial step and started making cars that gave consumers no excuses. No longer were their offerings “almost as good as” Japanese and American offerings. They were right there playing on the same court.

Despite significant product quality gains, Hyundai and Kia find themselves in the unenviable position where consumer perception takes much longer to change than it does to evolve their product lines. According to the J.D. Power 2015 Avoider Study,SM 14% of new car shoppers avoid Hyundai and Kia vehicles due to a perception of poor quality. The Avoider Study surveys buyers of new vehicles and asks them why they chose to avoid, reject, or purchase particular models. While 14% of new car shoppers avoid these Korean brands due to perceived quality issues, Kia ranks second and Hyundai fourth among 33 nameplates in the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Initial Quality StudySM (IQS), which measures new-vehicle quality after 90 days of ownership.

It’s this gap between perception and actual quality where the myth lays that Korean cars have poor quality. As the products themselves have improved, avoidance of the Hyundai and Kia brands has been easing over time, falling from 20% avoidance for poor quality in 2010 to its current figure of 14%. This drop in avoidance aligns with Hyundai and Kia’s last three years of IQS results, where both brands have scored higher than industry average. As the two brands continue to improve their products, the outdated perception that Korean cars have poor quality is just that: outdated.

2015 Subaru Forester photo2. Japanese Cars Have the Best Quality
Japanese brands built themselves a bulletproof reputation back in the 1980s and 1990s by building cars that were much more reliable than their competition at the time. During that time, the Korean car companies were still finding their footing in the American market, European brands were too rooted in their ways to change the way they built their cars, and American automakers were raking in profits and had little motivation to change their approach to building cars. Toyota and Honda were the clear leaders in terms of quality and reliability, but eventually this positive association trickled down to any Japanese carmaker.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Korean car companies—Hyundai and Kia—have most definitely found their footing, European brands finally woke up and realized they have to do better, and American manufacturers received a significant wakeup call a few years ago when the economic crisis hit, and have finally sobered up because of it. So where does this leave the Japanese manufacturers?

To lump all Japanese cars into the stereotype that they have the best quality would be incorrect. In the 2015 IQS, the highest-ranked Japanese auto brand, Infiniti, ranks fifth overall. Additionally, only four in 10 Japanese nameplates rank above the industry average for quality after 90 days of ownership. In the same study, eight in 27 segment award recipients hail from Japanese nameplates. Certainly not bad in any way, but not exactly the full takeover one may expect compared to common perception. Make no mistake, Japanese manufacturers are producing competitive products, but the fact of the matter is that so are all manufacturers these days, regardless of their origin. As for the common belief that Japanese cars have the best quality, it’s time to cue the Frozen soundtrack and let it go.

2012 Scion xD photo3. Inexpensive Cars Are Unreliable
In the 2015 IQS, 50% of new-vehicle buyers cite expected reliability as their most influential reason for choosing their particular make and model. Keep that in mind when considering that many non-luxury car buyers have the notion that the less expensive a car is, the less it is suited for long-term use. In other words, an inexpensive car is a “throwaway” car that isn’t meant to be kept around for very long.

The relation of investment to reliability is not at all proportional, however. The J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability StudySM (VDS) measures vehicle dependability after three years of ownership. When most non-luxury buyers hear the words dependability and reliability, the Toyota Camry is no doubt one of the first models to come to mind. And this perception is warranted: The Camry, long considered the standard of reliability for non-luxury cars, performs well in the 2015 VDS as it ranks second in the Midsize Car segment with a score of 101 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100).

In the 2015 VDS, there are four inexpensive small and compact cars that score higher than the vaunted Toyota Camry. The Scion xD and Toyota Corolla both receive segment awards, with scores of 81 and 93 PP100, respectively. The all-electric Nissan Leaf and the tiny Toyota Yaris also outperform the Camry in terms of dependability, with scores of 96 and 98 PP100, respectively. With the exception of the Nissan Leaf, the three small and compact models that outperform the Camry in terms of dependability each cost less than $20,000.

With three models under $20,000 that are among the most dependable cars across the industry, we can consider the myth that inexpensive cars lack reliability debunked.

2015 Lincoln MKZ photo4. The “American Car” Stereotype
“Isn’t that an American car?” A question usually asked with scorn. Scorn that in the year 2015 is unwarranted. Data gathered from the 2015 Avoider Study shows that 7% of new-vehicle buyers avoid a particular model because they do not want an “American” vehicle. This means that 7% of buyers know about a model that is American and decided not to research it or shop it any further because of its status as an American car. As American cars have improved and consumer perceptions have changed, this figure has decreased from the 10% of buyers that avoided American cars in the 2010 Avoider Study.

Now, 7% may not sound like a terribly large percentage, until you consider that U.S. auto sales are expected to reach over 17 million units this year, between both import and American brands. That means that more than a million buyers won’t even consider purchasing an American car. That’s huge.

In the 2015 IQS, of the 10 U.S. nameplates in the study, five performed above the industry average.  Chevrolet, Lincoln, Buick, Ford, and Ram all outperformed the industry average of 112 PP100. For reference, only four in 10 Japanese brands and four in 11 European brands performed above the industry average in the same study.

Not only are American car companies building higher-quality cars, the cars they are building are more stylish, more rewarding to drive, and contain more technology than many consumers give them credit for. In the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study,SM six in 10 American car brands score higher than industry average. On top of that, nearly one-third (nine in 26) of the segment award recipients are American models.

Today’s American cars have quality, style, technology, and strong driving dynamics. This is not to say that every last American car is perfect, as it would not be right to say every last Japanese or European car is perfect. But where does this leave the long-held stereotype of the “American car?” Myth expired.

2015 Porsche Cayman photo5. German Cars Are Unreliable
“I wouldn’t own (blank) out of warranty!” Most commonly a phrase heard in conversation regarding a preowned German car. Often known as machines that make the most out of driving, German cars have had a checkered past in the way of reliability. The image problem of having poor reliability can be detrimental to a brand when the 2015 Avoider Study shows that 51% of new car shoppers purchased their make and model because of its reliability. Combine this with the fact that in the same study, 11% of shoppers avoided German models because of their reliability, and it seems that these brands are in a bit of a bind.

But are German cars actually unreliable? The 2015 VDS shows that after three years of ownership, four in 5 German makes score better than industry average when it comes to long-term quality. Owners of Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW vehicles all report fewer problems than average. This is not merely a one-year fluke. Since the year 2000, Porsche has scored better than industry average in the VDS 14 times, even going so far as to rank highest among all nameplates in the 2010 study. BMW has scored better than industry average 12 times in the VDS since 2000, and Mercedes-Benz has outperformed the industry average nine times since 2000.

The myth suggests that these German brands produce unreliable vehicles, but actual long-term dependability results do not lie. Lately, German makes have been producing reliable vehicles, and the belief that they are unreliable should remain as nothing more than a myth.

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