If you're a consumer who wants to hone in on vehicle quality, the digital age makes it easier than ever. Automotive research has been revolutionized over the last decade by the easy availability of Web-based data and opinions. Both serve very valuable roles.
After deciding what the term "vehicle quality" means to you (see, "What Do You Mean By Quality?"), you'll need to do some homework to make the most informed choice of vehicle. Your first step is to check what the automotive experts say about the cars you're considering. Then, are the vehicles' owners satisfied with their purchases? Have there been any significant problems with the vehicles? Finally, do the automakers stand behind their cars if problems arise?
First, Ask the Experts
Whether you're looking for a new or used car, you can find the answers you need on Edmunds. Our First Drives, Full Tests, Comparison Tests, Follow-Up Tests and Long-Term Road Tests offer expert opinions on a vehicle's quality from its debut up to a full year. Our editors test the cars in a variety of conditions and report on vehicle performance and handling, but also look closely at important issues like fit and finish, vehicle build quality, reliability, cabin noise, and squeaks and rattles. And of course, there's the oft-quoted Edmunds Editors' Most Wanted Awards, which spotlight the new vehicles our editors would most like to see in their own driveways.
But initial quality isn't everything, especially if you're planning to buy a model that's been out for more than a year. "Compared with 'things gone wrong' in the first 12 months, a better indication of quality may be 'things gone wrong' in the first five years," said Clifton Lambreth, a Ford retail-zone manager.
For those reasons, Edmunds' Used Car Best Bets, which includes cars sold within the last seven years, are based on reliability, safety and availability — all of which translate to a better experience for the consumer. Consumer Reports magazine reports detailed model-by-model mechanical information.
Talk With Other Owners
Beyond what the experts say, you can tap into the vast flow of subjective opinions about vehicle models by going online and seeing what individual consumers think of their everyday rides.
It may be that no one in your trusted circle of friends has any direct experience with a Mustang you want to buy, said Alan Dean, vice president of business innovation for BrandIntel, "but online you can get connected to a whole network of people who do have experience with it, and you'll get some firsthand accounts of what the vehicle is like to own. You can get some very relevant perspectives on quality that way."
Through Edmunds Consumer Ratings and Reviews, you can get the inside scoop from vehicle owners. Bear in mind that, almost without exception, consumers rate and review vehicles more highly than editors do overall. And on Edmunds' Forums, you can browse discussion boards by model. You can also connect directly with consumers who own the car you're considering through CarSpace, Edmunds' social networking site.
These consumer-based opinions can prove as valuable as those rendered by the objective studies. "I think the best source of information about quality is current and former owners — the micro side of things," said Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Edmunds.com. "These are people who've actually owned the cars."
At the same time, online banter contributes to the industry's overall betterment. "Some automakers are monitoring online discussions and even engaging in them with consumers, then taking fairly aggressive action to fix what they're hearing about," said Dean, whose Toronto-based company measures online discussions for automakers and other companies.
For example, last year, when Toyota representatives monitoring Edmunds.com saw that a significant number of consumers were complaining about a transmission irregularity in its 2007 Camry XLE, the company posted a clear explanation, solicited customers' concerns and promised to resolve them. Similarly, Saturn representatives have been monitoring, responding to and even asking vehicle-quality questions of participants in the 2008 Saturn Vue discussion.
Does the Automaker Stand By Its Brand?
For some consumers, an even more important measure of vehicle quality than initial and long-term tests is the willingness of a manufacturer to back up its products. By that measure, General Motors and Hyundai — with the industry's only 100,000-mile warranties on powertrains — were top dogs. But Chrysler just leapfrogged them by introducing a lifetime powertrain warranty on all its new vehicles.
Perhaps Chrysler's warranty move will do for it what it did for GM. According to Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, GM's 2006 warranty extension alone "put GM on the shopping lists of a lot of consumers, probably giving them a 4-5-percent bump in consideration [compared with] before."
Chrysler's move was just the latest salvo in the years-long warranty wars among automakers. This brand-name battle has resulted in higher consumer protection across the board. Edmunds includes detailed information on the length of basic and drivetrain warranties, roadside assistance plans and rust and corrosion warranties in the "Reviews and Specs" area for every vehicle. You can also use Edmunds to discover if an automaker has issued any vehicle recalls or technical service bulletins for a specific vehicle. Too many of either can spell trouble.
Beware of Automotive Mythology
Some people bring other preferences and even prejudice into play. For example, many Americans believe that it's a bad idea to purchase a new model in its first year because the automaker hasn't worked out all the bugs yet — even though all manufacturers have made gigantic leaps in production quality.
Objectively, "It probably doesn't make a lot of difference if you wait a year," CNW's Spinella said, "because in today's vehicles, instead of taking an entire model year of production, problems are going to be tracked down in the first few months." Most consumers older than 50, he said, "still consider it a major issue." Those between 30 and 50 may have some concern, and consumers under 30 "have no concern" about the issue.
Some consumers also may refuse to consider foreign makes because they believe repair costs are considerably higher than for domestic makes. In fact, Japanese makes average from 7-15-percent higher repair costs (depending on the vehicle segment) in the U.S. than the Big Three brands, while European makes average 11-23-percent more than U.S. brands, according to CNW data.
To Thine Own Self Be True
Once you've done your research, you'll likely find that you've narrowed your choices down to one or two vehicles. Then vehicle pricing and your test-drive experiences will settle the matter. In the end, choosing a vehicle is a highly personal decision no matter what the data says or what others believe — or even if a particular vehicle has demonstrated certain issues.
"If you really like a given model, unless it's got atrociously bad scores across the board, you shouldn't let lower ratings dissuade you," Edmunds' Brauer said. "And there are no guarantees, anyway: You can have the most reputed car in the world and it might still strand you somewhere."
Dale Buss is a journalist in Michigan who has covered the auto business for more than 20 years.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.