The good news for the auto industry is that product quality in the traditional sense — fit and finish, the integrity of components, the lack of mechanical problems — is at an all-time high. The bad news is that the industry seems to be botching the transition into a new era in which "quality" largely is being defined by how automakers perform as manufacturers of high-tech connectivity platforms for which consumers have the same (Sirius) expectations of intuitive and smooth use as they do for smartphones.
The latest JD Power report shows that new cars are being made with fewer defects than ever, though tech complaints are on the rise. While consumers perceived fewer overall problems with new cars in JDP's latest annual survey of initial quality, there was an increase in the number of complaints about hands-free in-car connectivity technologies. The problems centered on the now nearly ubiquitous voice-recognition systems that are supposed to help drivers communicate relatively effortlessly with the outside world while curbing distraction.
The number of owner-reported problems with factory-installed hands-free communications devices has increasd 137 percent over the last four years, topped by complaints that the systems don't recognize voice commands.
"Almost no manufacturer has solved that riddle yet," David Sargent, head of auto research for J.D. Power, told the New York Times. "It's a collective learning experience that the industry is going through."
While Lexus, Jaguar and Porsche made the top three, while Ford remained mired because it coudn't correct quickly enough some tech problems with its new MyFord Touch system — basically version 2.0 of Sync — even after they were identified more than a year ago and accounted for most of Ford's huge dip in 2011 rankings.
Some other brands are trying to make sure they don't get clotheslined like Ford did in the influential Power rankings. Lexus once again led the rankings for 2012, but it has been trying to build on its lead in making sure new-car buyers are satisfied by adding the Lexus equivalent of Apple's Genius Bar to its dealerships, with new specialists dedicated to explaining connectivity technologies to buyers.
BMW, which placed below many other luxury competitors in the 2012 results, also has said it's going to take a genius-bar-type approach in its dealerships.
All auto brands have no choice but to try to do better in this booming area. GM, for example, has been showing off its new Cadillac XTS in New York this week as a model that could appeal to younger buyers. On what is much of Caddy's hope based? CUE (for customer user experience), a new connectivity platform that GM is first rolling out in the soon-to-be-launched XTS — which already features the voice, if not the functionality, of Apple's Siri.