Why Is Initial Quality Important, And Who is J.D. Power Anyway?

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Initial quality may leave a lasting impression. Why it matters.

In case you are a bit behind the curve, a new series of hilarious videos starring “Mahk” from Haverhill, Mass. has everyone wondering who this J.D. Power guy is and why Chevy cares so much about Initial Quality. While tipping our hat to Mahk and the creators of the video, we’d like to offer some real-life experiences that highlight why initial quality matters to new car buyers.

First a little background on J.D. Power. Dave Power, now forever nicknamed “JD Power Hammer” by Mahk, started his owner survey reporting company at his kitchen table in Calabasas, Calif. with his wife Julie in 1968. Dave and Julie intended J.D. Power & Associates, as the company was called, to specialize in the automotive industry, and indeed the first customer was a little-known company named Toyota.

Shortly after Toyota, Dave and Julie scored contracts with McCulloch Corporation, Ampex Consumer Products Group, U.S. Borax, Carnation, and MSI Data Systems. Since the beginning, J.D. Power has specialized in consumer surveys. Simply put, the group asks actual buyers and owners to rate the products they take home. J.D. Power then sells that information to its clients. The group also has some standard independently-financed reports it generates. One of these was what put it on the map. A study done on Mazda’s Wankel rotary engine earned coverage by the Wall Street Journal in 1973 and from there, the group had national recognition.

The Initial Quality Study (IQS) measures the number of defects found by owners of automobiles during the first 90 days of ownership. Automakers and car owners both understand that when a new car finds its way into a home, the owner expects it to work. It’s a new car after all. If it won’t work right when it’s new, when will it? The study is not the end of the quality, durability, and reliability discussion. There are dozens of other reports, many from J.D. Power, that measure longer term quality.

We staff writers at BestRide end up being that person in the family to which everyone wants to tell car stories. Anytime anything odd happens we get a Facebook message, text, or some other kind of ping from friends and family. We are one part therapist and one part encyclopedia.

Some of the defects we hear about are comical. One new vehicle we heard about would turn up the audio volume to maximum if one put down either front window. That is hilarious unless it’s your car. Then you need to take time off of work to take it to the dealer for a fix that should have been caught before it left the factory. Automakers don’t like defects like that because when the story is told the brand and model are always part of the discussion.

The findings J.D Power, Consumer Reports and others have highlighted about infotainment systems being the biggest problem area seem to be backed up with plenty of anecdotal evidence.

One other fun defect we heard about was a new vehicle that was displaying a flashing caution triangle and a warning in the information display. The only problem was that the script was in Korean.

Then there was the time my aunt’s car in Florida was taken back by the dealer after it was found to contain a huge colony of ants. Not Floridian ants, but some kind of scary invasive species that had arrived on the transport ship. Just this week my sister reported that she and her husband cannot figure out how to adjust the navigation volume in their new crossover. That isn’t very odd unless you consider this is their second of that same model and they never figured it out on the first one either.

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Other “problems” we have heard about with new cars, crossovers and trucks are in a sense defects, but also sort of just they way they were built. One driver told me this week he is being driven bonkers by a new truck that has a side-view camera that comes on (like it or not) when the turn signals are activated.

That doesn’t sound too bad except that the side-view camera image would take over the information screen from the Nav display the driver was using to thread his way through the city.

So just how often do new car buyers find a defect in a car during the first 90 days? Pretty much every time it turns out. The Kia brand has the best average with just 83 defects identified by owners out of every 100 vehicles. For Fiats and Smart brand vehicles it is more like two defects per car. That isn’t the only metric J.D. Power publishes of course. Its Vehicle Dependability Study looks at the first full year of new car ownership.  One interesting thing BestRide discovered digging into the two studies is that for most automakers, the problems come up early. Lexus, for example, has about the same number of defects in the first full year as in the first three months. For others, the bad news just gets worse. Fiat’s defects rise from about two defects per car on average in the first few months, to over three during the first full year.