Ask the average car buyer who makes the most reliable vehicles, and they’ll likely start with Japanese automakers, followed by the Germans and the Americans, and ending with the Koreans. Going by the results of this year’s JD Power Initial Quality Survey, though, that’s all wrong. “It’s almost the complete reverse,” says Dave Sargent, who oversees Power's vehicle quality research. The change in fortunes rides largely on how automakers have handled two big technological trends: proliferating infotainment screens and advanced driver assistance features.
Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.
The ranking, based on the number of problems owners of new vehicles report in the first three months, puts Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand, in the number one spot, with 63 problems per 100 vehicles. Kia and Hyundai are right behind, making for an all-Korean top three. The next three slots go to the Americans—Ford, Lincoln, Chevrolet—with Lexus and Toyota after them. All these brands score better than the industry average of 93 problems per 100 vehicles. Below that bar, you’ll find the Europeans, including Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Volkswagen. In the bottom two spots are Land Rover and Jaguar. A spokesman for those two brands, both owned by India’s Tata Motors, said that the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto has reduced complaints around infotainment issues, and that it's working to improve those scores. A Mercedes-Benz representative notes that this JD Power survey "doesn’t reflect the total ownership experience," but that it's helpful for "finetuning" its work.
The results don’t surprise Sargent. “This is not a one-year phenomenon,” he says. The Korean automakers have consistently improved their cars’ quality in recent years, especially around the infotainment systems that offer a combination of navigation, music, and voice calling features. The Korean manufacturers offer relatively simple systems that do the basics well, even if they skimp on next-generation ideas like gesture controls. That matches Consumer Reports’ most recent infotainment system ranking, which listed Genesis, Hyundai, and Kia among its favorites. It gave the top score to Tesla, which JD Power doesn’t include in its rankings, due to a lack of data.
The “problems” that consumers report tend to fall into two buckets. Some are defects that affect individual cars, like a headlamp that goes out. Others are related to the design of a vehicle, like a hard-to-use voice recognition system for doing things like placing calls and set navigation destinations. Today’s cars have far fewer defects than their predecessors did a decade ago, Sargent says, and mass manufacturers match the luxury brands on that count.
So drivers are more focused on the things that bug them about their vehicles. That exposes the luxury automakers to criticism, Sargent says, because they offer more features that may not work perfectly or be easy to understand.
This year’s survey found a small increase in what Sargent calls “traditional problems” like bad paint jobs and brake and suspension noises. That may be because, as car sales have slowed, vehicles are spending more time in the elements before going home with a customer—an effect known as “lot rot.”
While infotainment systems are responsible for more problems than any other category, they’re also where automakers made the biggest overall improvement since 2018. Industry-wide, the survey says, the systems are getting less glitchy and easier to use.
The new bad boy looks to be driver assistance systems, which for JD Power includes things like basic cruise control, lane departure warnings, and “semiautonomous” systems like Cadillac Super Cruise. As these features become more prevalent, more consumers are having trouble understanding how they work, or criticizing when they do and don’t intervene. And yes, studies show that drivers in the US and Europe often overestimate what their “semiautonomous” cars can do—setting them up for disappointment.
Overall, Sargent says, the encouraging thing is just how reliable new cars are these days. The 2019 industry average of 93 problems per 100 vehicles represents a 14 percent drop over the 2009 figure. Volvo, he notes, is in 28th place, out of 32. “I drive a Volvo,” he says. “I love it.”