Infotainment systems, transmissions still hinder new-car reliability, says Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports has delivered its car reliability survey results for 2017. In the latest annual survey, new model entries, infotainment systems, and multi-speed transmissions continue to act as drags on predicted reliability results.
IHS Markit perspective
- Significance:Consumer Reports issued its latest car reliability rankings on 19 October. The publication evaluates new cars, as well as non-automotive products, to advise consumers on the reliability of products. New-car buyers reference the publication's ratings in the shopping process and automakers take note of the feedback from this independent source.
- Implications: The results of Consumer Reports' 2017 survey have reiterated the industry issues of prior years. New models tend to perform lower in the rankings for predicted reliability in their first year or two and advanced transmissions and new infotainment systems continue to affect the results.
- Outlook: The annual Consumer Reports reliability surveys are closely watched by the industry, as some consumers consult the resource in shopping for new cars. A strong placement in the survey may offer third-party confirmation of an automaker's claims of quality. Automakers often incorporate the feedback from the survey into future model development. However, the survey results are not an indicator of sales performance.
Consumer Reports' director of automotive research, Jake Fisher, presented the latest results of the publication's annual quality survey to the Automotive Press Association in Detroit (United States) on 19 October. Largely, the trends from last year remain unchanged: vehicles that are in the first year after a significant redesign, particularly if there have been notable changes in infotainment systems and leveraging of multi-speed transmission and new engine technology, continue to see higher incidence of things going wrong, which acts a drag on their reliability scores.
On multi-speed transmissions, Consumer Reports author Patrick Olson writes in the survey report, "Not all cars that have these transmissions fare poorly, but first-year models that feature them draw an inordinate number of complaints from owners in our survey." In a statement, Fisher said, "These new technologies can add features and improve fuel efficiency, but are more prone to have issues. More often than not, our data suggests it's prudent for consumers to wait for the technology to mature." In terms of all-new vehicles, Subaru's all-new Impreza received a "below average" ranking, largely over infotainment issues, Fisher said during the presentation.
As with previous years' survey results, the report predicts the reliability of 2017 model-year products based on data from the past three years for most vehicles. The exception to the three-year rule is applied to redesigned vehicles; in those cases, Consumer Reports looks at a brand's previous performance on new model launches, as well as the number of components shared with existing products in a brand's line-up. Fisher said that Volkswagen's (VW) history of issues with first-year products contributed to the organisation's ranking of the all-new Atlas. In addition, he said that the publication's expectation that the Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle (EV) will deliver "Average" reliability is influenced largely by the number of components and systems it shares with the Model S, and the expectation that the Model 3 will be less complex in its feature offerings than the Model S or the Model X. Tesla's Model S has achieved an "Above Average" ranking, while the problematical Model X has the lowest score of any vehicle in the survey. On the optimism over the Model 3's predicted performance, Fisher said, "Electric vehicles are inherently less complicated than gasoline or hybrid alternatives. The Model 3 is the least complicated Tesla yet, and should benefit from what Tesla has learned from the Model S."
Automakers continue to have issues with multi-speed transmissions, particularly in the first year, though Fisher said that Ford's Focus and Fiesta have not seen an improvement in the performance of their dual-clutch transmission (DCT). Fisher also stated that Honda luxury brand Acura has fallen seven places in the rankings ‒ and the brand has updated its models with 7-speed DCT, 8-speed DCT, and 9- and 10-speed automatic transmissions, as well as new small-displacement turbo engines. Fisher said that Acura's best-ranked entry is the RDX ‒ its oldest model and the only one with a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission. Consumer Reports notes that the 9-speed automatic transmission in the Jeep Cherokee has seen improvements in reliability, helping the Jeep brand to jump three places in the rankings.
Fisher also noted that the performance of infotainment systems improves rapidly from one model year to the next. For example, issues with the Honda Civic's infotainment system caused Consumer Reports last year to hold back making that model a "Recommended Buy" for the first time in the history of the model, but Honda has corrected most of the problems in the space of a year and it is now back to being recommended by the publication. This is a more optimistic view than Fisher had when presenting the survey results in 2015. Two years ago, he called infotainment systems "the disease that keeps on spreading", as more and more automakers and brands enter the space and face a steep learning curve.
Of the 27 brands reviewed in the survey, the top five brands are considered "Most Reliable" by Consumer Reports. Positions six through 17 are considered simply "Reliable" by Consumer Reports, while positions 18 through 27 are categorised as "Least Reliable". The top five brands in 2017 are Toyota, Lexus, Kia, Audi, and BMW. Lexus and Toyota have held the one and two positions for several years running, while this is the first time for Kia to be placed in the top three. Audi held the same fourth position in the 2016 results, while BMW has moved up four positions to fifth place. Fisher noted that the Buick brand has slipped five positions from third to eighth place, on a well-below-average rating for the LaCrosse offsetting better-than-average ratings for the Cascada and the Envision (both models that were available in markets outside of the US first, giving Buick time to "work out the kinks" before a US launch). Twelve brands fall into the "Reliable" group. These include Subaru (sixth position, up five places), Infiniti (seventh, up one), Buick (eighth), Honda (ninth, up one), Hyundai (10th, down three), Nissan (11th, up two), Mazda (12th, down six), Porsche (13th, up three), Mercedes-Benz (14th, up three), Ford (15th, up three), VW (16th, up six), and Chrysler (17th, up 10). Fisher noted that Chrysler's performance is on a strong Pacifica and an older 300, and that the reliable showing of the Pacifica should instil some confidence in Chrysler's ability to develop all-new platforms.
Ten brands were in the "Least Reliable" category, including Tesla and despite the publication saying that it expects average quality from the untested Model 3. General Motors (GM) has struggled in 2017's results, with its Chevrolet, GMC, and Cadillac brands all in the "Least Reliable" category (and Cadillac in last place). Consumer Reports states that Chevrolet's Bolt EV has above-average reliability this year, although the Volt plug-in hybrid EV (PHEV) has a below-average rating and the compact Cruze has seen its reliability fall to below average in 2017. Along with Tesla, GMC and Cadillac, premium brands in the "Least Reliable" category include Acura, Lincoln, and Volvo. In discussing Consumer Reports' approach to predicting the reliability of the all-new Volvo XC60, Fisher stated that the organisation relied more on analysis of the performance of the XC90 and the S90, because of a high commonality of components, than on the performance of the previous-generation XC60, which had above-average reliability but shares little with the high-tech new XC60. For Volvo, this is not necessarily positive, as Consumer Reports states that the XC90 is ranked the third-least-reliable model among new vehicles (ahead only of the Escalade and the Model X), with a worse-than-average rating driven by a problem rating for the infotainment system, which was the worst in the survey. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (FCA) Dodge, Jeep, and Ram brands are also all in the "Least Reliable" category, though all three have seen an improvement compared with last year. Neither Alfa Romeo nor Fiat was ranked. Higher complexity in full-size truck platforms appears to still be an issue for GM and for Ram. Fisher noted in his presentation that the Silverado continues to see issues, and that those contribute to the issues of the related Escalade, along with the Cadillac's higher feature content (more things available to go wrong). For Ram, the 1500 pick-up has improved, but the heavy-duty 2500 and 3500 have not.
Outlook and implications
The Consumer Reports annual reliability surveys are closely watched by the automotive industry, as some consumers consult the resource when shopping for new cars. A strong placement in the survey rankings may offer a third-party confirmation of an automaker's claims of quality. Automakers often incorporate the feedback from the survey into future model development. However, the results are not an indicator of sales performance. As some cars with low reliability are also highly emotional purchases, the results of this survey are also not accurate indicators of overall consumer satisfaction with a product or of consumer loyalty to a brand or model.
Infotainment systems and transmissions continue to be problematical, particularly in the first year of introduction, and it remains true that there are fewer mechanical issues from systems including suspensions and engines. Although the Consumer Reports car reliability survey rankings, like other quality and satisfaction surveys, provides a third-party evaluation, but there is little relationship between sales volume and the publication's brand rankings. In 2016, the top five brands by sales were Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Honda, and Nissan. In the latest rankings, three of these are in the "Reliable" category, with only Toyota in the "Most Reliable" category.
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