Stellantis brands received accolades with their Ram and Dodge brands taking first and second spots in the 2021 US Initial Quality Study by J.D. Power, although the Chrysler brand pulled up at the back of the pack. The Nissan Maxima received top honors for the model with the best initial quality. Overall, the brand rankings are extremely tight, showing the auto industry has dialed in on manufacturing practices.
Between third-place Lexus and 14th-place Ford, only 18 problems per 100 vehicles separated them with Lexus recording 144 PP100 and Ford at 162 PP100. The industry average is also 162 PP100. BMW had several model category winners despite being six places further down the list with 166 PP100. The study notes a 2% improvement year over year.
The quality between brands has tightened, but the problems that new vehicle owners are experiencing have been made even more obvious. The most prevalent concerns are now about their infotainment systems and, more specifically, smartphone connectivity.
Getting connected is the issue
Of the problems that customers reported, one-quarter are related to the infotainment system and J.D. Power found that “six of the top 10 problems across the industry are infotainment related”. Owners are having difficulty connecting their phones to their vehicle for systems designed to be convenient – systems like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s especially noteworthy for wireless systems.
Dave Sargent is the vice president of automotive quality at J.D. Power. In the press release, he said, “Owners are caught in the middle when vehicle and phone technologies don’t properly connect. This year there are many examples of smartphone technology not working as intended in new vehicles. With more vehicles being fitted with the wireless technology owners want, the study reveals an increase in connectivity problems between smartphones and vehicles, leaving many owners unhappy.”
Who’s at fault?
It’s easy to pin the blame for clunky or hard-to-use infotainment features on the manufacturer and their HMI providers. It might be true that some problems are due to oversight or lack of real-world testing. Whoever is actually at fault is irrelevant, though, because the customer’s sole concern is that their car isn’t functioning as they believe it should.
“Owners want wireless connectivity, and the industry has responded,” Sargent said. “However, this has created a bigger technical challenge for both automakers and tech companies. Automakers generally are the ones facing the wrath of owners, but this is definitely a shared problem. Owners don’t care who’s at fault—they just want their phone and their vehicle to talk to each other.”
A 2019 study by AAA noted that complex infotainment systems, especially in luxury cars, take much longer for older users to navigate. “This is a design problem, not an age problem,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “Designing systems to meet the safety and comfort needs of aging drivers would benefit all of us today, and for years to come.”
How dealers can help
With simplified, easy-to-navigate infotainment systems, carmakers can achieve better initial quality scores, and that’s a goal they’re working towards all the time. However, dealerships are often able to help curb the concerns early on – before they’re reported as one of the problems per 100 vehicles – during vehicle delivery.
Salespeople and delivery coordinators are often quite familiar with the common challenges and questions that car buyers have regarding infotainment and other systems that can affect the perception of initial quality. During the walkaround, test drive, and delivery, it pays to point these common questions out and offer a solution if one is available.
For example, if a certain model has trouble connecting to Apple CarPlay and requires a simple reset to get it functioning, show the buyer how that’s done so they can save a visit to the service department. And for questions regarding in-vehicle tech early in ownership, have them touch base by phone, email, or text with an associate who’s well-versed in technology to avoid an unnecessary visit.
While some of the issues are problems that require a service appointment, others are easily solved and can help improve upon the customer’s perception of initial quality.
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