Jeep to Infiniti Infotainment Flaws Reduce Auto Quality

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Staying constantly connected in your car through elaborate infotainment systems is increasingly coming at the cost of quality, Consumer Reports magazine found in its latest survey of automotive reliability.

Defective in-car electronics, such as balky dashboard touch-screens, generated the most complaints among the 17 categories that Consumer Reports polled owners of 2014 model cars about for its Annual Auto Reliability Survey released yesterday. The flaws, which include systems failing while driving, were significant in first-year models for brands such as Jeep, Fiat, Ram, Cadillac, Ford and Honda, the Yonkers, New York-based magazine said. Asian brands, such as Lexus and Toyota continue to lead the rankings.

“The predominant problems with cars are now with infotainment,” Jake Fisher, the magazine’s director of automotive testing, said in an interview. “The automakers are trying to compete in a space where people are used to the Apples, Googles and Samsungs of the world. The smartphones have a better track record and the automakers are really stumbling.”

Drivers are demanding their cars keep them constantly connected to their smartphones and the Internet. The number of cars connected to the Internet worldwide will grow more than sixfold to 152 million in 2020 from 23 million now, according to researcher IHS Automotive. The Consumer Reports findings echo those of J.D. Power & Associates 2014 new-car quality study, which found almost one-in-five complaints were for audio, entertainment and navigation systems. Problems are so widespread, they’re “like a plague,” Fisher told reporters yesterday at the Automotive Press Association in Detroit.

‘Stream Pandora?’

“It’s not going away because people absolutely want this,” Fisher said in the interview. “To many consumers, whether a vehicle goes from zero to 60 in 9.1 seconds or 9.7 seconds is far less important than, ‘Can I stream Pandora and see the album art?’”

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury brand remains atop the Consumer Reports reliability study, while the company’s namesake brand again ranks second. Asian automotive brands account for seven of the Top 10 brands, with Mazda rated third, Honda fourth, Subaru seventh, Toyota’s Scion brand eighth and Kia 10th. Toyota has added infotainment features gradually, starting with established designs, to minimize failures.

Automakers “are starting to get there,” on infotainment technology, Fisher said. Older systems, such as BMW’s iDrive and Ford’s MyFordTouch, have shown significant improvements as automakers refine them and update software. The most complaints are with the newest systems, such as InTouch on the Infiniti Q50 sedan from Nissan Motor Co., in which one-in-five owners reported problems that in some cases required shutting off the car to reboot the system, Fisher said. Infiniti fell 14 slots to No. 20.

Debugging System

Getting some of the bugs out of MyFordTouch helped the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker move up from the bottom of Consumer Reports rankings last year to 23rd out of 28 brands. Ford’s Lincoln brand jumped 12 spots from last year to rank 15th.

“We’re recommending more and more Fords and Lincolns,” Fisher said. “We’re now recommending every version of the Fusion.”

Still all U.S. automotive brands, except General Motors Co.’s Buick, ranked below the industry average. Buick ranked sixth, up 6 spots from last year, while GM’s Cadillac luxury line moved up seven spots to rank 18, its GMC brand fell 11 spots to 19 and its Chevrolet slipped four spots to 21.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, despite fewer reported problems with its Uconnect infotainment system, ranked near the bottom. The Chrysler brand fell four spots to 22, while its Dodge, Ram, Jeep and Fiat brands held the bottom four spots.

Least Reliable

“The 500L is absolutely the worst car in the reliability survey this year,” Fisher said of Fiat’s small wagon.

The deficiencies haven’t held back Chrysler’s U.S. sales, which have risen for 54 consecutive months, because consumers still find the design and performance of its models appealing, Fisher said.

“Chrysler is really improving its models,” Fisher said. “The Jeep Grand Cherokee is a wonderful vehicle.”

GM has the best performance among the U.S. automakers because it takes a more conservative approach to redesigning its vehicles, Fisher said. Still, reliability problems with the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups pulled down the ratings for those brands, he said.

GM, dogged by a recall crisis this year, also managed to fare well in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study, placing the most models atop the closely watch survey. GM won six model segments, the most of any automaker, with its Chevrolet Malibu besting the Toyota Camry.

European Brands

Among European brands, only Volkswagen AG’s Audi luxury line and Porsche sports cars cracked the Top 10 in the Consumer Reports reliability survey, coming in at No. 5 and No. 9 respectively.

BMW ranked 14th, up one slot from last year, while Mercedes-Benz fell 11 slots to 24th. VW climbed three rungs to 17th.

Consumer Reports surveyed its subscribers on their first year of ownership with their 2014 model cars and trucks, which generated information from about 1.1 million vehicles, the most ever, the magazine said. CR said it gathered data on 248 models to predict reliability on new cars.

The best fix for problems with infotainment systems may come from the smartphone makers at Apple Inc. and Google Inc., which are each introducing dashboard versions of their technology. Consumer Reports has tested Apple’s CarPlay, which mimics the look and functions of an iPhone in a larger and simpler format on a dashboard touchscreen.

“CarPlay may very well be a game-changer and Google is going to do a very similar system” known as Android Auto, Fisher said. “Now you’re taking the true experts in the realm and letting them do what they do well in the automotive space.”