In pursuit of top vehicle quality

  • 25-Jul-2008 01:09 EDT
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None of Chrysler's nameplates landed above the industry average in an independent study addressing new vehicle quality, yet the automaker scored the top spot in two segments as the Dodge Durango notched the highest ranking for a midsize SUV and the Dodge Dakota finished best among midsize pickup trucks in J.D. Power and Associates’ 2008 Initial Quality Study (IQS).

Neither the Durango nor the Dakota is an all-new vehicle. "Most OEMs improved their carryover vehicles, mostly through fewer defects and malfunctions," said David Sargent, Vice President of Automotive Research at J.D. Power. The California-headquartered global marketing information services company released 2008 IQS results in June.

The IQS is based on a 228-question survey of more than 81,500 people who bought or leased MY2008 vehicles in the three months from November 2007 through January 2008. The target is 450 responses per model. "At the end of the day, whether we win J.D. Power or not, our goal is to make our customers happy," said Doug Betts, who was hired to serve in Chrysler LLC's newly created position of Vice President and Chief Customer Officer in November 2007.

Betts, who most recently served as the Senior Vice President in charge of quality at assembly plants in North America and South America for Nissan, is now the person charged with overseeing a new emphasis on quality at Chrysler. Instead of looking at quality solely from a product perspective, Chrysler revamped that approach in February 2008 when it put quality issues in the problem-solving scope of 18 cross-functional teams. Each team of engineering, manufacturing, and other specialists addresses items by various vehicle categories, such as brakes, ride/handling/steering, driveline, powertrain electrical/electronics, powertrain systems, exhaust, audio/telematics, interiors, seats/seatbelts, closures, and transmissions. All team members have a common objective: reduce vehicle dissatisfaction and defects.

A few weeks ago, the 250 people comprising those 18 teams had either resolved or were working to resolve 54 quality issues. The defects that soon found a remedy included a malfunctioning seatbelt-use reminder. "We found a manufacturing issue in which the wire was getting pulled so it didn't have strain relief, and that was causing the switch to be damaged. We also found supplier quality issues where the switch was defective coming out of the plant. And we found a design issue with the routing of the wire, and that meant the switch could be damaged during shipping. We found three problem sources through a cross-functional team approach," Betts said.

The 2009 Dodge Ram would use that same device, so fixing the quality problems on a carryover vehicle meant avoiding those problems when the new full-size pickup truck launches in the summer of 2008. Under the vehicle maker's former quality find-and-fix approach, "it would have been the design engineering group that would have tackled the problem. They would have fixed the issue. But the manufacturing and supplier issues would not have been fixed, so two-thirds of the issue would have continued. And we would have had to wait months to see that," said Betts.

Customers absolutely want vehicles to be devoid of defects and malfunctions, but quality of design is far from being an unimportant element to consumers. "Considerable work is necessary in the area of design quality, and this issue will become increasingly important," said J.D. Power's Sargent. The audio/entertainment/navigation category's ratings in the 2008 study dropped compared to the 2007 IQS. According to Sargent, issues with difficult-to-use audio and entertainment controls and voice-command-recognition failure "are among the top 10 problems most frequently reported by customers."

Consumers frequently take a love-it or hate-it approach to design. "There are things about cars that in the first 90 days if you asked customers they might say ,'I don't like that.' But if you asked them after a year, they would say, 'Once I learned how to use it, I realized it's the best thing that I've ever had and I never want anything different than this.' If you're just pursuing points on a 90-day survey, you could actually change that and then your loyal customers who love this thing—whatever it is—are saying, 'What are you doing? You've changed the car I love,'" said Betts.

One thing that everyone appreciates is positive results. Ford Motor Co. continues its trek in the right direction as the automaker again improved its IQS scores, something it has done continuously since 2004. The Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury nameplates each scored above the industry average of 118 problems per 100 vehicles. "We have designed our quality operating system to satisfy all the customer needs and requirements in terms of quality, reliability, long-term durability, and feature content, as well as attributes like fuel economy," said Graydon Reitz, Ford’s Director of Americas Quality.

Ford's Manufacturing Quality Operating System is a standard global process that continues to evolve. "We are happy with the progress that we've made to date, but we view this as a point along the journey. Our endgame is to be the unequivocal leader in quality," said Reitz. For the 2008 IQS, Ford landed 10 vehicles in the top three places of various segments, including three number-one spots: the Mazda MX-5 Miata for compact sporty car, the Lincoln Navigator for large premium SUV, and the Ford E-Series for van.

Like Ford, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. grabbed three segment wins, with the Civic for best compact car, the Fit for best subcompact car, and the CR-V for best compact multi-activity vehicle. In all, 11 different vehicle nameplates picked up an IQS award in one of 18 different segments. Of the 36 domestic and non-domestic nameplates involved in the study, 26 scored higher than in the 2007 IQS. The 2008 total industry average of 118 PP 100 was higher than the industry average of 125 PP 100 in 2007. "It's a job well done for the industry," said Sargent. For the third year in a row, Porsche had the industry's best IQS ranking.

The top award for best assembly plant quality in the Americas was Toyota's Baja California, Mexico facility, where the Tacoma pickup truck is produced, while the top plant for quality in the Asia-Pacific region was Toyota's Fujimatsu, Japan, center where the Prius is assembled. And the best plant in Europe for quality was Mercedes-Benz' Sindelfingen, Germany, facility where the CL-Class, CLS-Class, E-Class (sedan and wagon), and S-Class vehicles are produced. Plant awards were based only on defect and malfunction counts (the nameplate rankings include defects/malfunctions as well as design problems).

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