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.