Not All New Cars are Better Than Their Old Models

By Chris Haak

A typical pattern in the life cycle of products in a competitive market is that a new product will be introduced, and it will be incrementally better than the one it replaces.  Many times, its manufacturer will also at least attempt to benchmark the category’s leaders, and then either meet or beat the best attributes of those.  Then, after a period of time, a competitor will launch a new product, which may set a new benchmark.

Continuous improvement is known as kaizen in Japanese, and it’s the principle that helped Japan, Inc. take a significant share of US new-car market since the 1970s.  It’s also perhaps the worst-kept secret in the auto business that consistently applying incremental improvements over an extended period of time results in outstanding products that your customers are eager to line up to buy the new version at some point.

Perhaps it’s unusual, then, that Consumer Reports specifically called out six new-for-2011 automobiles as being worse than the 2010 model-year vehicles they were created to replace.  Regular readers of Autosavant should not be surprised to see some of CR’s comments, since we’ve made similar observations.  Here are the six cars with scarlet CRs affixed to their grilles, their former and new scores out of 100, plus the problem areas that CR identified with each:

  • Volkswagen Jetta SE 2.5 (from 76 to 60):  Handling, steering, braking, noise, interior fit and finish
  • Toyota Sienna FWD/AWD (from 93/89 to 80/79):  Steering, road noise, interior fit and finish
  • Toyota 4Runner (from 66 to 55):  Ride control, handling, noise, driving position, front access, interior fit and finish
  • BMW X5 3.0 (from 77 to 67):  Controls, shifter, visibility
  • Mercedes-Benz E350 (from 88 to 79):  Steering, ride, fuel economy
  • Honda Odyssey (from 91 to 83):  Handling, braking, cargo area

It’s not that VW, Toyota, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Honda forgot how to build good cars, any more than the US forgot how to send a man to the moon.  Just as NASA can barely afford to send the space shuttle into low-earth orbit, today it’s just very expensive to meet ever more strict fuel-economy and crash-test standards, while simultaneously adding comfort and luxury features, more interior room, and more performance.  All vehicle designs are inherently about compromises; to have one new feature, you either have to charge more for the vehicle, pinch your supplier, or take something else away.  You then have to hope that the “something” that you’ve taken away is not noticeable to the buyer.

The Odyssey, E350, and Sienna still score fairly well in CR’s evaluation, but it’s a problem when vehicles that you spent millions – if not hundreds of millions – of dollars to develop can’t quite live up to the benchmarks that their excellent predecessors established.

Back to the drawing board.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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10 Comments

  1. I don’t see how improving the fuel economy should degrade such things as visibility, ride, handling and steering. I think it all shows that designing a car is still an art, and like any artist, your creation may not match your best work in the past.

  2. Take the 2011 Sienna, for instance. It now has a six-speed instead of a five-speed automatic, which costs Toyota more, but improves fuel economy. It’s also safer and has additional interior features (like the wider DVD screen and reclining second-row seats). Toyota’s not really charging much more for the 2011 than it did for a comparable 2010, so to be able to afford those features, it lowered the quality of the interior materials. The dash in the old Sienna was soft to the touch, at least on its upper half. The 2011’s is all made of hard plastic.

    Some of the other issues you cited, such as visibility, are due to prioritizing form over function. BMW’s ridiculous gearshift design is a perfect example of making something that should be simple to use very complex, and I’m glad CR called them out on it.

  3. I certainly see the relationship between cost cutting (or bad design decisions) and product quality. But I don’t think CR would take points away form a car that has tried to improve gas mileage by sacrificing, say, the acceleration numbers.

    BTW, I completely agree with your judgment of new BMW gearshift design.

  4. I agree with you, Alex. But CR has not cited lower performance as a reason for dinging these cars, and it’s hard to think of many vehicles whose performance actually declined from one generation to the next in recent years.

    The point I was trying to convey was that adding ratios to transmissions, adding direct injection or turbos, etc. costs money, so they have to either raise the price, accept lower margins (unlikely), or cut cost elsewhere in the car. CR is dinging them for other cuts, not really performance. Performance hasn’t declined.

    Improving fuel economy is not related to bad design or visibility, but combine less-practical designs with other tradeoffs, and you may wind up with a car that’s worse than its previous generation.

    I picture new-car development as having a series of levers. If every lever was set to “10,” you’d have a perfect car: attractive, efficient, fast, good handler, comfortable, roomy, inexpensive, etc. But it’s impossible to have every “lever” set to 10. A Ferrari 458 Italia might have all 10s except for passenger space, but it also probably would have a “3” for price, for example. Where cost is an object – most cars – the other levers have to be lowered.

    Thanks for the comments, BTW…I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

  5. Add one more to the list. I drove the new Ford Focus 1.6 TDCi, and I couldn’t help but notice that it wasn’t as good as the old one. The interior materials felt cheaper, some plastics on the B-pillar were already scratched from the seat belt (300km on the clock!) and the whole thing just didn’t feel ergonomically sound somehow. Steering feel wasn’t what I expected either, and the “premium Sony” stereo distorted way more than the “premium Sony” in the old one.
    The old European Focus was brilliant, the new one is just… good.

  6. Regarding the VW Jetta, it is less that it was, but I’m betting 99 out of 100 people would never know.

    I haven’t driven the Toyota Sienna, but I’ve driven the 4Runner and I’m guessing most people would see and feel the difference. More, as in more than 50% would know the difference.

    I haven’t driven any of the others on their list.

  7. In the case of Volkwagen Jetta, they have lowered the price a lot from the old model!

    And it might be a better trade off!

    But dont think 6 speed transmissions or other
    options demoted the car, in which they subsituted or tradedoff a inferior interior or other item!

    You know as with most model, you have good, better and best! the higher end has the leather, more sound insulation and other things! If you want then the cost is higher and expected!

  8. The 4Runner was already dated. Now you say it’s been decontented? Sweet.

  9. This takes some of the sting out of buying an Odyssey a year ago just to have the new model come out. Of course it takes none of the sting out of driving a minivan but I’ll take what I can get.

  10. You also have to consider the credibility of CR’s testing. After this story first broke, I had the need to do some poking around online as regards the Odyssey. Even though CR said it went backward in terms of handling, braking and cargo space, most reviews I’ve seen laud the new model’s handling, Edmunds.com (for one) reported that its braking distance decreased as compared to the older model, and the Honda spec sheet shows both models have the same cargo volume behind the third row, with the 2011 Odyssey gaining room with the rows folded flat.

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