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The Globe and Mail

Car surveys fail when drivers, not defaults, are to blame

Ford MyTouch system on Ford Edge

michael bettencourt The Globe and Mail

Manufacturers and consumers both benefit from extensive quality surveys. They can be used by consumers to judge the initial and longer-term reliability of vehicles and by manufacturers to address areas of obvious concern to customers.

The best-known of these surveys are those conducted by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates. The Consumer Reports surveys are less broadly based since they are restricted to folks who subscribe or belong to the organization and thus have a greater interest in consumer issues and propensity to complain. The J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey and long-term reliability reports, obtained from random surveys of new-vehicle buyers immediately after the purchase and at several points during the ownership experience, are generally considered more representative or accurate since they are based on the general population, not a specific group. These surveys, sent to registered owners of new vehicles, contain 228 questions in eight categories.

An interesting development is emerging though as these surveys become more widely communicated and accepted – the "problems" reported are not necessarily faults during assembly, problems that need to be addressed by a visit to the dealer for repairs. They very often are design issues.

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The Power surveys are broken down into a myriad of detailed reports, most of which are not made public but made available to manufacturers – for a price. It is these detailed break-outs of the survey that cause the midnight oil to be burned in design and manufacturing facilities.

An example of this is a recent surge in complaints about seats, specifically head restraints. Taken on the surface, these reports of "problems" with seats/head restraints could be construed as a safety issue, whereas in reality it is a comfort issue.

The latest J.D. Power and Associates 2011 U.S. Seat Quality and Satisfaction Study showed that 6.2 per cent of new-vehicle owners experienced "problems" with their seats. Broken down further, head restraints and related controls were the most frequent source of these complaints.

This "problem" can be traced to new regulations that came into effect for 2009 model year passenger vehicles. A U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head-restraint standard went into effect at that time in an attempt to reduce whiplash injuries in rear collisions. The new standard involves higher minimum seat height and a reduced distance between the back of an occupant's head and the head restraint.

It was readily apparent that something had changed. You sat in the seat of these vehicles and, more often than not, your head came into contact with the head restraint while you were in the normal seating position.

The most common solution was larger head restraints, leaning forward at an angle to within close proximity of the head. Obviously, the constant contact and inability to move your head fore and aft bothered a lot of drivers. Some manufacturers were able to address the new standard with new seats and different placements. They did not take a hit on the score sheets.

As an aside, I should point out that these devices are head restraints, not head rests as they are so often mistakenly called. While addressing the whiplash issue, the new restraints encourage resting your head while driving, a major faux pas. And by way of reference, seats were not the biggest source of complaints about the interior; I am using them as an example of how "problems" can be related to different sources. The same survey showed 13.1 per cent of new-vehicle owners reported problems with the vehicle exterior, and 11.7 per cent with features/controls/displays.

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Which points to another aspect of these surveys – an apparent reluctance to accept new features and technologies. Ford – overall – dropped an amazing 18 positions in the most recent J.D. Power surveys. This would lead us to believe there is a problem in Ford plants that the vehicles are suddenly being built haphazardly. But that is definitely not the case – Ford assembly quality remains among the best in the industry. The problems being reported – the ones that resulted in this precipitous drop in the rankings – stem from the company's growing use of MyFord Touch, which involves extensive use of voice-recognition. The reports that it did not work were probably more related to familiarity than system failure.

As vehicles become more complex, it will become necessary for companies and dealers to provide more and better communication on changes and developments.

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