J.D. Power Initial-Quality Scores Show Some Surprises, Some Non-Surprises

It’s time again for automakers to brace themselves for the release of the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 Intial Quality Scores.  These rankings, which document customer-reported problems (either real or perceived) during the first 90 days of new car ownership, are closely watched by buyers, advertisers, and industry observers.  This year’s report, released last week, showed a few surprises, and a few perpetual laggards seem to be only treading water rather than improving.

The biggest surprise in the survey, hands-down, was that Jaguar leapt (see what I did there?) from #22 in 2011 to #2 in 2012, with its problems per 100 vehicles dropping from 122 in the 2011 survey to just 75 in the 2012 survey.  Does this mean that Jaguar suddenly turned around its decades-old reputation for beautiful cars with spotty quality?

What about Volkswagen?  Another company that makes desirable products that potential buyers assume will break down, VW improved in real terms by seeing its problems drop from 131 per 100 vehicles to 124, but the company was hoping for more.  “Our internal data pointed to a better improvement,” was the quote from VW of America, or something to that effect.

Guess who is on top of the list?  Perennial winner Lexus.

The bottom?  FIAT.  Not a particularly good way to re-launch a brand that had built a reputation for poor quality cars (and led to the joke that FIAT stood for “Fix It Again, Tony.”  As we’ll discuss later, though, FIAT may not be in quite as poor of condition as the results would lead you to believe.

Ford had done well in Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, and TrueDelta quality rankings for several years until it rolled out the controversial MyFord Touch  capacitive touch interface/voice command system throughout several members of its lineup.  Last year, Ford blamed MFT on its poor J.D. Power showing (calling it “software glitches that we’re addressing”).  Yet, the company’s JDP numbers for 2012 are actually worse than its 2011 numbers (116 in 2011 vs. 118 in 2012).  And they’re again blaming MyFord Touch, but this time, the company line is that software updates have fixed the problem, but they came too late to affect the 2012 survey.  “Just wait till next year!”  (Not a true quote, but one that we might hear coming from Dearborn).

But according to our friend Michael Karesh, who runs TrueDelta.com (itself a competitor to, and often critic of, J.D. Power and Associates), Ford’s problems go deeper than their fancy infotainment interface.  The Explorer has condensation issues with its mirror and has rattling A-pillar trim, and also, the Focus (which does have MFT) scores well in quality surveys.

The good news is that the industry average fell from 107 problems per 100 vehicles to just 102.  In other words, the average new vehicle will have about one problem (while two poor saps will have two problems).  Or more accurately, many will have no problems, while a handful will have several problems.

But there’s a problem calling this survey an “initial quality” survey.  It’s not really measuring quality, at least not solely.  It’s measuring the new-car buyer’s perception of quality, and further, only for their first 90 days of ownership.  When it came to pass that new cars were ever-more reliable several years ago, and there were few true quality problems to report in the first 90 days of ownership, rather than just giving everyone a passing grade or shutting down its lucrative survey, J.D. Power changed its definition of quality.  Now, the company is basically measuring purchase satisfaction rather than true quality.  I suspect that this is part of the reason that the large Japanese brands like Honda and Toyota have fared so well:  their reputation is so solid that some true quality problems may be written off as normal or not a concern – and therefore not reported to J.D. Power and Associates as such.

Jaguar scores well because people are happy with their beautiful new Jaguar, and nothing typically falls off or breaks within the very short 90-day window.  Toyota scored poorly two years ago because the company was in the thick of its recall crisis and the brand’s perception suffered.  But even if your car is tightly screwed together, it can still have a “problem” if you don’t understand how to use its infotainment system.  Or if you don’t like the hard plastic on the door panels.  Or you think it might accelerate out of control and take you to an early, violent death.  You get the idea.

Now, MyFord touch is far from perfect, even with tweaks to the interface and software over the past few months.  Its initial problems (which manifested themselves in the 2011 survey results) were more than just drivers not knowing how to use it; I am very comfortable with technology, yet I have seen a MyFord Touch system completely shut down and reboot while driving firsthand.

Perhaps changing the name of the study from “J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Initial Quality Study” to “J.D. Power and Associates 2012 Purchase Satisfaction Study,” it would not have as misleading of a name as it currently does.  When you see “FIAT” at the bottom of the list with 151 problems per 100 vehicles, at first glance, it would seem that the 500 (which is the only FIAT model sold in the US) is a lemon.  Power doesn’t tell the public what problems are that it identifies, but it would be more than happy to sell those details to Fiat/Chrysler for a consulting fee.  (Remember earlier when I said this study was lucrative for J.D. Power?)  TrueDelta’s results for the FIAT 500 show minor annoyances such as an “A/C On” light that is too dim to read in daylight.  The 500 has its share of questionable ergonomic decisions, which makes the car’s secondary controls somewhat difficult to operate (particularly for a new owner), so that is likely the reason for the poor ranking.

The lesson in all of this is that J.D. Power and Associates should change the name of this survey to more accurately reflect what it is truly measuring – and that’s not just quality.  Of course, automakers are quite aware of the methodology change at J.D. Power that allows buyers too much latitude in what constitutes a problem to be reported, when many are just complaints.  Since they know what they will be measured on, and know that there’s an unhealthy focus on non-quality issues, they should keep the kinds of things that they are dinged for in mind when designing and engineering a new vehicle.

Also, we need to remember that the new-car smell isn’t close to leaving a 90 day old car.  It’s not wearing out or breaking down in almost any case.  Come back to me and talk quality when we’re not looking at perceived issues and when the car has lasted more the initial 90 days.  Would you buy a new car with only a 90 day warranty?  Or on a 90-day loan?  Of course not, so why look at quality over only 90 days?

What do you think?  Any surprises or non-surprises that I didn’t address?

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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  1. Hi Chris,

    Changing the name of the survey to better reflect what it measures would be a great starting point. More transparency about the method and questionnaire would be useful too.

    The UK’s JD Power Vehicle Owner Satisfaction Survey (VoSS) results have just been released. Given that is used to separate good from bad, there’s actually not that much separating the 118 cars – the top performing Kia Sportage scored 83.8% (or about eight of out ten) – and the bottom performing Vauxhall Vectra 70.2% (or about seven out of ten).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that expert reviews are more directional – therefore more useful.(see http://wp.me/pWnus-4Q)


  2. Great post, Simon – thanks for sharing the link. There isn’t much difference between a bad car and a good car anymore, is there?

  3. It’s a stupid survey from this distance. Why would/should I be interested in what appears to be the first impressions of a vehicle by its new operator? Especially when I’ve no idea how many are user choosers or have the vehicle foisted upon them.

    Given the dearth of actual car knowledge out there apart from ‘key goes here, fuel goes here’ then the fact that most punters can’t figure out how to tune the radio or adjust the seat should be no surprise. So to have this incapacity then be influencing such a survey (because punters get frustrated when they can’t figure out they are intuitively incapacitated) does make the results a little questionable…


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