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The Best/Worst Brands in J.D. Power's 2020 Initial Quality Survey

Dodge tied for the top spot with Kia becoming the first domestic automaker to achieve a first-place ranking in the study's history.
Mark Toljagic
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For the first time in 34 years of probing U.S. buyers about their new vehicles 90 days after signing on the dotted line, J.D. Power has ranked a Detroit automaker number one in its 2020 Initial Quality Study (IQS).

Dodge tied for the top spot with South Korea’s Kia brand among 31 manufacturers, becoming the first domestic automaker to achieve a first-place ranking in the closely watched study’s history. Chevrolet, Ram and Genesis round out the top five auto brands in the survey, which was conducted between February and May for vehicles purchased or leased 90 days earlier, just ahead of the pandemic outbreak.

J.D. Power found it necessary to revise the IQS questionnaire for the first time since 2013 to better capture the issues consumers are actually complaining about in their technology-laden models. With new emphasis on tech features such as Apple CarPlay, phone apps and driver-assist safety features, almost one-quarter of owner complaints in the study involve “infotainment” systems.

“Customers want a lot of capability, but they don’t want it to be complicated,” explains Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive quality at consumer research firm J.D. Power. “The domestics and the Koreans in particular are delivering that much better than the other manufacturers.”

As a result of the questionnaire redesign, the industry average number of problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) increased by 78 per cent – from 93 PP100 last year to 166 PP100 in 2020 – which may sound alarming, but Sargent says the manufacturers have taken the results in stride since the sample size is much bigger (more than 87,000 respondents) and the data is much richer.

“The higher problem levels we see in this year’s study don’t mean vehicle quality has worsened; rather, the redesigned study asks additional questions that allow owners to cite more of the problems that they are experiencing,” Sargent notes.

The 2020 study reveals some fresh findings: many Detroit brands (Dodge, Chevrolet, Ram, Buick, GMC, Jeep and Cadillac) landed above the industry average, while most of the premium import automakers such as Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Audi scored below the average with owners reporting more than 166 problems per 100 vehicles. Sargent attributes their poor ranking to overly elaborate technology that tends to frustrate drivers.

High-scoring individual models were also noted in the IQS. Hyundai Motor Group, whose brands encompass Genesis, Hyundai and Kia, had the most vehicles top their segments with seven. General Motors’ brands had six, while BMW, Ford and Nissan each had three models.

Japanese manufacturers landed somewhere in the middle of the IQS ranking, having failed to improve their wares as quickly as their competitors, according to J.D. Power. Critics have suggested that the 90-day timeframe is too short to get a true picture of initial quality beyond learning what irritates new-vehicle owners as they acclimatize to their updated rides.

J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study, released every February, provides a more in-depth examination of the vehicle-owner relationship after three years, which can reveal more serious quality issues – such as oil-burning engines and hard-shifting transmissions – that car shoppers will find informative. The dependability study often shows a re-ordering of the brands ranked in the Initial Quality Study.

Sargent defends the importance and validity of the IQS, which the automotive industry has embraced and follows closely. Automakers such as Fiat Chrysler and Kia that learned from the IQS that consumers crave easy-to-use infotainment controls have improved their systems, and have been rewarded in subsequent IQS rankings.

“Brands which launched a lot of high-volume vehicles this year, and brands that have a lot of confusing technology on them, tend to struggle in the study,” Sargent says. “Brands that deliver consumers a simple technology experience tend to perform much better.”

Here are J.D. Power’s five best-rated brands in terms of initial quality; the five poorest-ranked brands will follow below.

 

1 – Dodge – 136 PP100 (Tie)

It’s largely because Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge brand offers five aging models – the Grand Caravan, Journey, Durango, Challenger and Charger – that the venerable nameplate eclipsed its Detroit competition to be the first to wear the crown in initial quality (albeit tied with Kia). Models that have been in production for more than a few years without a redesign generally have their bugs worked out – and Dodge has had lots of time to do so.

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

Canadians can take pride in the accomplishment, since the Grand Caravan minivan and the Challenger and Charger performance models are assembled in Ontario. The 12-year-old Journey sport utility is built in the FCA plant in Toluca, Mexico – which won a gold award from J.D. Power for plant assembly line quality. Curiously, none of the vehicles Dodge makes won any model segments in the study.

 

2 – Kia – 136 PP100 (Tie)

Perhaps because engine durability issues have dogged owners of older models, Kia amped up its quality and made it integral to its success story. This is the sixth consecutive year the South Korean automaker, now a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Group, is the highest ranked mass-market brand, tied this time with Dodge.

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

In the latest IQS report four Kia models finished highest in their categories: the Forte compact car, the Soul small SUV, the Sorento upper-midsize SUV and the Sedona minivan. Having opened its first Canadian dealerships just two decades ago, this relative upstart has won hearts and wallets with its affordable lineup that’s backed by a five-year factory warranty.

 

3 – Chevrolet – 141 PP100 (Tie)

General Motors’ largest division continues to make inroads with its initial quality. In this year’s results, Chevrolet garnered two IQS category wins for its Malibu midsize sedan and the Sonic small car. In fact, the Sonic achieved the best score of any model in the study with just 103 problems per 100 vehicles. It’s worth noting that the subcompact, sold as both a four-door sedan and as a hatchback, has been on the market largely unchanged since 2011.

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

The Sonic notwithstanding, Chevy has been ambitiously updating its model lineup with new generations of familiar models to remain competitive. Quality lessons learned at Chevrolet have quietly spread throughout GM’s other brands, including Buick, Cadillac and GMC Truck, since many models share the same platforms and drivetrains.

 

4 – Ram – 141 PP100 (Tie)

Knowing where its paycheque comes from, Fiat Chrysler has invested a lot of its cash in its truck brand – Ram – a bet that’s paid off handsomely. The all-new Ram 1500 pickup, introduced last year, has garnered numerous industry awards for its refinement and class-leading interiors, and has found a ready buyers’ market (it doesn’t hurt that the outgoing model continues to be sold beside it).

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

In an attempt to keep the retail price competitive, the fifth-generation Ram 1500 offers seven trim levels, compared to the previous 11 different trim levels. Ram also offers heavy-duty versions of the pickup; in fact, the 2500 and 3500 derivatives were both named 2020 Truck of the Year by MotorTrend. Ram also markets the ProMaster and ProMaster City utility vans, which were originally Fiat products designed for Europe.

 

5 – Genesis – 142 PP100

Ever since Hyundai spun off its posh Genesis and Equus sedans into a standalone luxury brand in 2017, Genesis handily beat luxury stalwarts such as Porsche, BMW and Lexus right out of the gate. With the original sedan renamed the G80 and the redesigned Equus becoming the range-topping G90, the Genesis mission has been to make other luxury-car purveyors nervous.

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

In this year’s IQS, the G70 rear-drive sedan won the compact premium car category for the second consecutive year. It’s interesting to note that Genesis (142 PP100), Lexus (159 PP100) and Cadillac (162 PP100) are the only premium brands that ranked better than the 2020 industry average in the IQS. Conversely, the premium European brands languished at the lower end of the rankings.

 

RANKING THE POOREST IQS BRANDS

J.D. Power’s 2020 IQS involved 31 automotive brands and, for the first time, Tesla – which is not ranked due to the fact owners living in some U.S. states could not take part in the study due to permissions not being granted in those jurisdictions. Regardless, J.D. Power noted that Tesla earned the poorest quality score and is included here because the sample size of 1,248 is statistically valid.

Presented below are the five poorest-ranked nameplates in the 2020 Initial Quality Study. To help dissect the IQS information, we’ve looked at common complaints posted online to learn what owners are reporting in terms of significant faults. If you don’t see your automotive brand in these two lists, then it resides somewhere in the nebulous middle.

 

28 – Mercedes-Benz – 202 PP100

In its zeal to introduce younger buyers to the Mercedes-Benz fold, the automaker continues to introduce models that uphold the prestige of the three-pointed star, but at a more accessible price point. That’s why we get cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class four-door “coupe” and, more recently, the A-Class sedan and hatchback.J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

With a younger, hip target demographic in mind, the A-Class has been the first to get Mercedes’ new MBUX infotainment system, the one users can rouse with “Hey, Mercedes.” It’s a departure from much of what Mercedes-Benz did previously, and an attempt to offer something fun for the masses. Unfortunately, the cloud-based system doesn’t quite work as advertised and owners can grow flustered. They’ve also noted faulty radar sensors can send false information to activate the auto-braking system unnecessarily.

 

29 – Volvo – 210 PP100

China-backed Volvo is back in the hunt with its Scalable Product Architecture platform that underpins most of its appealing new models. Long celebrated for their longevity (like the Swedes who build them), Volvo’ reputation for longevity should not be confused with reliability, which is a different kettle of herring.

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

Unfortunately, new-generation Volvo owners have had to contend with electronic glitches, faulty instrument displays and non-operative door locks. The Sensus console is reportedly slow to respond to commands. Volvo’s automated braking system reportedly may activate at random, which could potentially result in a collision. Drive-E’s fuel-saving auto stop-start system cannot be disabled permanently, a common bungle that generates problem scores that don’t actually reflect a reliability issue.

 

30 – Audi – 225 PP100

As Volkswagen’s aspirational brand, Audi has been racking up plenty of sales – or, more accurately, leases – with its line of fashion-forward sports sedans and family-friendly SUVs. However, a lot of components are drawn from VW’s parts bins, including the fussy 2.0-L turbocharged four-cylinder engine that’s notorious for consuming oil.J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

Owners are reporting other types of drivetrain lapses, such as the rough-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission in the popular Q3 sport-ute. Safety system warning lamps can light up erroneously and Audi’s MMI interface controller is prone to locking up. Despite the low ranking, Audi managed to score a segment win for its diminutive A3 sedan in the small premium car category this year.

 

31 – Land Rover – 228 PP100

In spite of Tata’s best efforts to reduce reliability issues in one of Britain’s best-known exports, Land Rover continues to be dogged by less than flattering assessments by its tony customers. The brand adheres to the LR tradition of exhibiting mechanical faults early in the ownership experience. English electronics can present numerous headaches from blank instrument displays to malfunctioning cameras.

J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

Owners report plenty of Check Engine lights to decode and software upgrades to perform. Sensors may provide faulty information. The entertainment and navigation systems are slow to respond and not intuitive to use. Another old English affliction – water intrusion, sometimes attributable to leaky windshields and sunroofs – can be responsible for electrical snafus throughout the vehicle.

 

Unranked – Tesla – 250 PP100

Tesla earned the worst score of any automaker rated by J.D. Power this year, with an average of 250 problems per 100 vehicles – a “projected” score given the fact that 1,248 new Tesla owners were surveyed in 35 states where the company was permitted to approach them. Owners of other brands were surveyed nation-wide, so the methodology for Tesla was not consistent.J.D. Power Initial Quality 2020

It’s important to note that Tesla was not punished for its all-electric drivetrains; in fact, owners report Tesla’s electric vehicle systems perform exceedingly well. Surprisingly, the brand struggles with other problems, such as paint quality, wind noise, rattles and body panel fit and finish. Sargent suggests that being a very young company, Tesla hasn’t yet mastered typical assembly issues that other manufacturers perfected years ago.

 

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