Car Decisions – The 3rd Party Guides

What’s the Big Deal?

Every year the mainstream media reports on what Consumer Reports and J. D. Power say about the reliability and initial quality of the current crop of cars. Car magazines do their best to stay honest, but with the advertising hyperbole and fact-twisting we’re bombarded with there, it’s good to have these watchdogs who are not beholden to the manufacturers for advertising revenue, giving us unbiased information. 

One such report just came out in the Los Angeles Times ( http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-autos-consumer-reports-20111026,0,7233282.story ) decrying Ford’s drop in the Consumer Reports rankings from 10th to 20th.

Ford Fusion Hybrid

J. D. Power Initial Quality dropped Ford’s rating from 5th to 23rd this year and they fell on Consumer Reports reliability list too. Still, Ford’s Fusion Hybrid remains CR‘s most reliable family car and rated No. 4 among family sedans – ahead of the “average reliability” Toyota Prius.

It’s the nature of the beast that they make a big deal about these surveys. You don’t sell magazines or papers by saying something like “Consumer Reports ratings reveal little about the cars you can buy.” In any case, it’s interesting industry scuttlebut, but why would you care how the company is doing? You aren’t buying the company, you are buying a car, and within each company there are reliable cars to consider.

The media are pretty safe in making such a fuss about what may be a tempest in a teapot, because those reports never seem to put the data into historical perspective, and I am sure you will never see the raw data on which it’s based.

To get an idea what we’re talking about, consider how Consumer Reports gathers their data. Every spring they send their subscribers a survey form to fill out.

Right away sceptics will be asking whether Consumer Reports‘ readership is the best guide to what they may experience. They’re a fussy lot, and Mercedes once whined that their cars were downgraded because owners complained about brake dust on the wheels.

Let’s say you accept that your concerns match that of their readership. What’s the data based on? The survey they send out asks about your experience with the car in the last year. So the information you provide could already be as much as a year old when you fill it out. It takes Consumer Reports a year to process those surveys and report information in the magazine’s April issue the following year, when some of the data could be two years old. Consumer’s Union realized this recently, so now the report the papers are talking about is a little more current. The oldest information will be about a year and a half old.

Jaguar XF at Los Angeles International Auto Show, 2007

The Los Angeles Times prominently featured a picture of the Jaguar XF in their article, saying it received the poorest Consumer Reports reliability rating. But does that represent the experience you’d have, or the car’s real value to its owners?

Manufacturers are keenly aware of the value of a good reputation, and they get feedback from dealers and owners about their experience. They make an effort to correct any problems quickly, so if they are on their corporate toes, a problem some reader reported on 18 months ago may be corrected by now.

Compared to What?

To me though, the difficulty is that all those statistics measure current cars against each other. Consumer Reports grades on a curve. The real question then, is how big are the differences, and what are they based on?

Statistics are queer things. There was a report circulating for a while making a big deal over a gun buy-back program implemented in Australia after which the homicide rate supposedly increased by 300% in Victoria. Forget that they got the math wrong and it was really 117%. The point of Snopes.com’s response was that the raw data was an increase of 12 in a population 0f 4,500,000. That should be listed in textbooks as the illustration of the expression “statistically insignificant.” Without the raw data you don’t know the significance of the differences.

What is reliability?

Thirty years ago, a new force had entered the auto market, and word of mouth was causing the Detroit Big Three to take notice. Some other automakers were actually paying attention to building cars that didn’t break the first time you drove them around the block. People were telling each other about how far their Toyotas, Datsuns, and Subarus had gone without a problem. We retired our 1980 Dodge Colt (a rebadged Mitsubishi Mirage) after 97,000 trouble-free miles, feeling as though we’d hit the reliability jackpot.

But there’s no place to go to find the raw frequency-of-repair statistics for those cars. My intuition is that those cars as a group would place in the lower third of the pack if measured against today’s cars.

That doesn’t mean that they weren’t really reliable after all. It means that our expectations in that regard have escalated, and it’s people like Consumer Reports that have driven them. How reliable do you need your car to be, and at what cost?

What is a Satisfying Car Experience?

Even stodgy Consumer Reports has recognized that there’s more to car ownership than repair statistics. Their Annual Car Issue now features the results of a survey that asks “Would you buy another?” as well as problems reported. Many cars at the bottom of the reliability index rate near the top here, because they offer something more than appliance-like reliability.

J. D. Power has recognized this disconnect also, and now produces an “A.P.E.A.L.” (Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout) report, that is supposed to tell buyers whether owners actually like their cars, unrelated to whether they take frequent trips to the repair shop.

In Car-ma; Why Bad Cars Happen to Good People, I talk about this in terms of “A Meal Without Flavor,” comparing a car chosen for its reliability alone to an entree chosen for its nutritional content without regard to its palatability or presentation. Let’s face it, if you could get 100% of your nutritional needs from a handful of pills, would you give up pizza?

No, and while you don’t want a car that you can’t trust, you do want your car to provide more than a mere means of getting from point to point.

Next year I’ll be facing this kind of question myself. I am still wrestling with the confusion of choices out there. For my budget I could get a cheap (reliable) used car for grocery-hauling and a fun vintage sports car to drive on sunny days to car shows. Or there are a few cars I’m considering to bolster my “green”credentials. But whatever I chose, I won’t be buying on durability or reliability alone. Life’s to short to be satisfied with boring cars.

Honda CR-Z

If I decide to buy a new car at the end of my lease next year, this is the top candidate. The Honda CR-Z has the “flavor” I crave (sexy look, a little sportiness, available 6-speed manual transmission) and the “nutritional value” I need (hybrid drivetrain, number two on Consumer Reports’ reliability list). Maybe by then there will be an Si version. Make mine red.

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About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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