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GM's Quality Spin

Here we go again. After years of quality improvements from Detroit, General Motors and Chrysler tumbled down the list in J.D. Power and Associates’ annual Initial Quality Study. The study measures problems found in the first 90 days of ownership after interviewing 97,000 consumers.

GM did poorly and a company spokesman argued that the survey doesn’t matter. All of GM’s brands finished below the industry average, which is 125 problems per 100 vehicles. Last year, Chevrolet and Cadillac finished above the mean. To be fair, Buick and Chevy missed the industry average by the slightest margin.

Chrysler fared much worse. The Chrysler brand finished 27th out of 35 brands with 151 problems per 100 vehicles. Dodge and Jeep both finished in the bottom five among brands. Looks like Cerberus has some work to do when it completes its acquisition of Chrysler this fall.

Back to GM. The reason it doesn’t matter, says the spokesman, is that the difference between top performers and the middle of the pack is statistically irrelevant. Toyota, which tied Jaguar for sixth with 112 problems per 100 vehicles, beat Chevy by just 17 problems per 100 cars. He makes a point. Few consumers will notice 17 problems per 100 vehicles. The Power study, he told me, is becoming less and less relevant because quality is reaching parity.

There’s some truth to that. But the argument naively misses a huge point. While some brands like Mercedes moved way up the charts this year and others, like Chrysler, tumbled way down, hot names like Honda and Toyota are in the top 10 every year. Every year!

Consumers love and trust those brands. And those companies have been dining on Motown’s market share for decades now. Sure Detroit is close, by the numbers anyway. But consumers won’t believe that Detroit is as good as Honda and Toyota until they beat them and beat them consistently in J.D. Power surveys, Consumer Reports studies, word-of-mouth recommendations and just general buzz. I’m sorry, why should a guy who’s on his third Toyota or Honda buy a Chevy? Because the initial quality is almost as good and the disparity is statistically miniscule? There’s a great sales pitch.

And by the way, it wasn’t that long ago that GM executives criticized Consumer Reports, in one case very publicly, because their vehicles didn’t do so well in the magazine’s surveys. When CR started recommending more GM cars, suddenly executives and PR folk were crowing about their ratings. They have bragged about past successes in J.D. Power surveys, too.

Here’s an idea. Rather than saying the survey doesn’t matter, buck up and beat Toyota. If the number of problems between the best and the average is so statistically irrelevant, then eliminating 17 problems per 100 cars shouldn’t be that hard. Just get it done, would ya?

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