Several years ago when I was an auto writer for The Detroit News and attending a media ride and drive program in Arizona, I was joined for 60-70 miles by a high ranking executive. I would drive, so I could learn about, and evaluate the new vehicle, while running a voice recorder so I could capture my interview with the executive. First thing, the executive says, “Ed, please turn off your recorder for a moment. I have something to say, that, if you associate it with my name, we’re through..forever.” Sure. I stop the recording and the guy asks me for a favor. “Could you please write a story with a simple angle but leave me out of it? That angle would be, ‘IQS is pure bullshit!” He then went on to elaborate complaining about the criteria for a “problem” and how automakers are screwed when operator error or failure to properly research a vehicle before purchasing may really be the culprits. Seeing I had only limited time with the guy I made no promises and quickly moved on to areas where he would go on the record so I could come away from my time with him with a story we could publish.
If you’re not familiar with it, IQS is the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. Each year the J.D. Power sends surveys out to several thousand folks who are asked to cite what they would consider problems with their new vehicles after 90 days of ownership.
Based on the responses, the analytics company publishes a study ranking each brand by how many problems are reported per 100 vehicles as well as enumerating specific problems reported by consumers.The most recent study results were released a few weeks ago.
Sounds good, right?
Over the years, IQS has been criticized and questioned to the point where J.D. Power actually made wholesale changes to the survey some years ago.
Arguably, one of the breaking points was when owners of gas hog Hummers complained they weren’t getting very good fuel economy from the beasts. Ya think? Was that a problem with the vehicle or a problem with customers not doing some basic research before buying?
Oh, over the years respondents would whine that the ride in a Jeep Wrangler was rough. Yes. That’s correct. The Jeep Wrangler is not a family land yacht, minivan or cushy crossover. It’s a vehicle designed to go off-road, climb rocks, take you places that have no roads. All one has to do is take a few minutes to research the Wrangler AND….take a sufficient test drive over less than perfect pavement. It’s not the Wrangler’s fault! A lot of people buy Wranglers just because they look cool and find out what they’re really all about later…then complain about the vehicle doing what it was designed to do. I owned one for 6 years and loved it because I kayak and the Wrangler had no problem navigating some of the iffy dirt and rocky two-tracks that led to the water. I only got rid of it when the transmission smoked up and died. It had a lot of miles on it and I figured I’d take advantage of its high trade-in value.
It all further hit home when I covered this year’s IQS and we were told many people complained about several automakers’ infotainment systems. Oh..they cried about them being too complicated or whatever. So during the question and answer period I asked whether there’s really a problem with these systems or are owners just being too freakin’ lazy to read the manual to learn how to use the systems.
Here’s the answer I got: “People won’t read the manual. They just won’t. The true solution is to fix it upstream and get it right the first time.”
But what’s actually wrong? OK..yes..some systems are unduly complicated, but generally modern infotainment and connectivity systems are not necessarily so intuitive you can just sit down and operate them as you could in the old days when the most complicated electronics was an AM/FM radio with an 8-track, cassette or CD player. There is a learning curve. But you have to take the time to learn. Personally, I spent a couple of hours with the owner’s manual of my Subaru Ascent learning how its electronics work and what all the buttons and lights mean. Now I’m happy. It was easy. No complaints.
Some dealerships, like my Subaru store, offer what’s known as “second deliveries” where, after owning the vehicle for a week or so, you come back and there’s someone to answer any question you have and demonstrate how things work. If the instructions in the manual weren’t clear enough, the person conducting the second delivery is likely to help you figure it out. I know, I know…who wants to schlep back to the dealership? Well..my dealer dangled a 25 buck gas card as an added incentive, on top of, you know, learning how to use the cool stuff I paid for.
To be fair, IQS offers some valuable insight, especially when it comes to fit, finish and ergonomic issues a customer might not detect during a quick test drive, or do not become apparent until you’ve lived with the vehicle for a bit. If it’s really a quality issue, then the automaker deserves to take the heat. But if the issue is a failure by the customer to adequately research the vehicle and simply buys it because of appearance or brand cache’ or is simply too lazy to breeze through the owner’s manual..then it’s too damned bad. You don’t have to read the manual cover to cover…target the sections that pertain to items you’re not familiar with and return to it as needed. There are also plenty of instructional videos and customer support sites on the web. Jeez…make the effort!
But every year when I’m covering IQS I’ll think back to that long ago conversation with the auto executive and his invective aimed at the closely followed study. When I break it down I really have to believe what he really meant was don’t report something as a problem with the vehicle, when often, the real issue is with the person driving it.