Lincoln Tops Lexus in Vehicle Dependability, But…
By Chris Haak
J.D. Power and Associates has released its annual vehicle-dependabilty study results. In this year’s survey, the perennial top brand, Lexus, was knocked off its perch by Lincoln, of all things. Yes, that Lincoln: Ford’s near-luxury luxury brand that boasts a lineup consisting of nothing but gussied-up Fords.
Lincoln’s ascent in the study is not really a big surprise, since the brand was in the second spot in the previous year’s results, and Lincoln has been climbing steadily in its quality scores for nearly the past decade. But changes made to J.D. Powers’ methodology a few years ago mean that their definition of “dependability” may not be what most others think of.
When I hear the term “dependability” in the context of cars, I think of whether or not something breaks. That’s what Consumer Reports attempts to predict/track, and that’s what Michael Karesh of TrueDelta.com tracks as well. I’m not a CR subscriber (in spite of already mentioning CR in another piece this week), but do participate in TrueDelta’s research. TrueDelta asks pointed questions such as, “did your car have any repairs during February?” and “who paid for the repair?” and “would your car still have been drivable had you not initiated the repair?” To me, those are the types of questions that get to the meat of whether a vehicle is dependable (in TrueDelta’s parlance, the word “reliability” is used instead).
So when one begins reading Powers’ press release, it’s easy to assume that Lincoln builds more dependable/reliable vehicles than Lexus does. After all, Lincoln had 101 problems per 100 vehicles, and Lexus had 109. (The industry average was 152 problems per 100 vehicles). But a closer look at the Power’s methodology shows that it’s not only capturing mechanical problems, but also dings cars and trucks for things like the Mini Cooper’s interior controls and seats being “difficult to operate,” according to Automotive News.
The press release from J.D. Power cites some dubious “dependability” issues as being the most common complaints.
According to the 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study, batteries are the most commonly replaced vehicle component during the third year of ownership. In all, 5.8% of survey respondents indicated that they had to replace their car or truck battery during this time, much sooner than the 4-5 year life expectancy that is sometimes indicated in advertising by battery makers. This may suggest that all of the technology found on today’s vehicles, which seems to be increasing by the day, is having a negative impact on battery life. The other two most commonly replaced vehicle components were brake rotors (5%) and tire-pressure-monitoring systems (3.7%).
Batteries are wear items, as are brake rotors. If 5.8% of survey respondents had to replace their batteries during the first three years of ownership, that means that 94.2% of them did lasted beyond the first three years – which puts them right in the thick of the “4-5 year life expectancy.” Tire-pressure monitoring systems should not be failing, but they have a rough life; they’re exposed to extreme temperatures, they are electronics, and mounting/dismounting tires are hazardous to their health.
Power continues with
The most commonly reported problems by owners of three-year-old vehicles are: excessive wind noise; noisy brakes; and paint that is peeling, fading or chipping.
Wind noise and peeling paint are not dependability problems, per se, but they are certainly quality problems that have to be addressed. Excessive wind noise could be weatherstripping that’s dried out, fallen off, or incorrectly installed. But it could also be indicative of an overly-sensitive owner or a poor design that’s been with the car from the moment it rolled out of the factory. Noisy brakes could be caused by any number of factors, including high-friction pads, worn brake pads hitting their wear indicators, or a poor design – not really a dependability issue.
This subjectivity is what bothers me the most about this type of report. J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Survey (IQS) seems to be even worse in this regard, at least on its face. The IQS, which is frequently touted, but covers only the first 90 days of new-vehicle ownership, explicitly dings cars on design issues, along with defects. I’m the furthest thing from a statistics expert, but it seems that a well-designed survey would segregate the two types of issues, and not lump them together into a single rating that’s much-discussed in the industry.
Finally, it’s important to remember that this is a study that looks at three year old cars (primarily 2008 models in this year’s report). It’s not necessarily reflective of an automaker’s current lineup. For instance, of the segment winners that Power cited, a number of the winners have moved onto new generation vehicles, which may or may not share the reliability chops of their predecessors.
Among winners that have moved to new models are: Honda Fit, Hyundai Elantra, Scion tC, Ford Fusion, Buick LaCrosse, Ford Mustang, Ford Taurus, Lincoln MKZ, Acura TL, Acura TSX, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Subaru Forester, Chrysler PT Cruiser (out of production), Toyota 4Runner, Ford Edge, Lexus RX, Lexus GX 470 (now the GX 460), Ford F-150, Ram 1500, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, and Chevrolet Uplander (out of production). Basically, only a handful of the segment winners are still being produced in more or less the same form that they were three years ago.
This is not to say that reliability would go out the window when changing from one generation to another, but for example, the Buick LaCrosse changed from the GM W platform in 2008 to the GM Epsilon II platform beginning with the new model, and is built in a different plant than the 2008 car did, with different powertrain choices as well. Extrapolating the 2008 LaCrosse’s reliability onto a 2011 LaCrosse would be an exercise in futility.
Helping Lincoln win the award for 2008 vehicles were not its recent offerings like the MKT crossover, but one out-of-production model – the F-150-based Mark LT pickup – and another about to go out of production – the Town Car. So don’t buy a 2011 Lincoln assuming that it will be reliable. The MKS and MKT may be reliable, but the Town Car and Mark LT certainly are not predictors of that.
The lesson here is to take statistics – and headlines – like this with a grain of salt. Statistics can be used to tell a story, and the same statisics can tell several different stories, depending upon the biases or point of view of the author.