ALL QUIET ON QUAL­ITY

WHY CAR BRANDS KEEP SUR­VEY DATA FROM YOU

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - BILL McKIN­NON

Y ou could be for­given for think­ing that dirty lit­tle se­crets — and dirty big ones — are ac­cepted prac­tice in the car in­dus­try, be­cause re­cent ex­am­ples of a cul­ture of cover-up and its po­ten­tially tragic con­se­quences are very easy to find.

Where shall we start? How about Diesel­gate, VW’s emis­sions cheat­ing soft­ware scan­dal that led to last month’s ar­rest of Audi boss Ru­pert Stadler.

Then there’s the Gen­eral Mo­tors faulty ig­ni­tion switch dis­as­ter in the US. In 2015 GM was fined $US900 mil­lion for fail­ing to re­port the prob­lem — the switch turned it­self off while the car was be­ing driven — for 10 years af­ter it be­came known. The faulty switch caused crashes that took more that 120 lives.

The Takata saga is still be­ing played out around the world, 17 years and 23 deaths (in­clud­ing one in Aus­tralia) af­ter driv­ers in the US be­gan com­plain­ing to reg­u­la­tors about faulty airbags.

In April, Ford Aus­tralia was fined $10 mil­lion by the Aus­tralian Com­pe­ti­tion and Con­sumer Com­mis­sion for “un­con­scionable con­duct” in its treat­ment of about 2000 cus­tomers who bought a Fi­esta, Fo­cus or Ecosport fit­ted with the trou­ble­some dual-clutch Pow­er­shift trans­mis­sion.

“Ford knew that its ve­hi­cles had three sep­a­rate qual­ity is­sues,” the con­sumer watch­dog said. “De­spite know­ing that shud­der­ing was a symp­tom of the qual­ity is­sues … Ford fre­quently told cus­tomers that shud­der­ing was a re­sult of the cus­tomer’s driv­ing style.”

Un­der the Aus­tralian Con­sumer Law, you may be en­ti­tled to a re­fund or re­place­ment ve­hi­cle (your choice) if your new car has a “ma­jor fail­ure”. This in­cludes a prob­lem that, had you known about it be­fore you bought the car, would have crossed it off your list.

It also in­cludes a car that is “sub­stan­tially un­fit for (its) nor­mal pur­pose”. That is, a lemon.

You can have all the le­gal rights in the world but en­forc­ing them is al­ways go­ing to be dif­fi­cult, time-con­sum­ing and, even if you win, prob­a­bly ex­pen­sive.

An ob­vi­ous and easy way to min­imise the risk of be­ing sad­dled with the car from hell would be if you could get ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about which cars, and brands, de­liver the best qual­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and dura­bil­ity — and, just as im­por­tantly, which ones don’t.

Such in­for­ma­tion ex­ists. Aus­tralia’s car com­pa­nies col­lect it from new car buy­ers — but they’re not about to share the re­sults with their cus­tomers.

The Au­to­mo­tive Re­search Com­mit­tee, with more than 30 car brands as mem­bers, com­mis­sions re­search to find out how cus­tomers are get­ting along with their new car, from ini­tial pur­chase through the first three years of own­er­ship.

It asks own­ers about prob­lems and faults

with the car it­self, plus their opin­ion of the dealer’s cus­tomer ser­vice and the over­all feel­good fac­tor, or oth­er­wise, of their ex­pe­ri­ence.

Brands are ranked best to worst and the re­sults shared among com­mit­tee mem­bers — but not with the pub­lic who buy new cars.

ARC mem­bers sign a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment, gain­ing ac­cess to the re­sults on the con­di­tion they keep them se­cret. The only way you’ll ever get to know is if all mem­bers agree to pub­li­ca­tion. As an in­dus­try source told us: “That’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

We asked com­mit­tee chair­man Justin Orr of Mercedes-Benz why the re­sults are not made avail­able to con­sumers. His re­ply: “The sur­vey is not de­signed to be a pub­lic score­card or a com­pet­i­tive com­par­i­son.”

We also asked Holden, Ford, Toy­ota, Kia, Honda, Mazda, Mit­subishi, Hyundai and Volk­swa­gen whether they favoured keep­ing the con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment, or were open to the ARC sur­vey re­sults be­ing made pub­lic.

Only VW and Hyundai were pre­pared to share the re­sults with car buy­ers.

“I’d be happy to share the data, as long as ev­ery­one else does. We’ve got noth­ing to hide,” says Hyundai’s Scott Grant.

“More open­ness and more dis­clo­sure not only re­flect pub­lic ex­pec­ta­tions now and into the fu­ture but (also are) a sign of a more mod­ern and ma­ture in­dus­try.”

Ja­son Brad­shaw from VW says: “Volk­swa­gen Aus­tralia is the only brand that pub­lishes on its web­site the per­for­mance of each dealer based on the di­rect feed­back of 80,000 cus­tomers an­nu­ally. So we’re happy to have our qual­ity data pub­lished, pro­vid­ing that other brands do like­wise so that there is a ba­sis for com­par­i­son.”

POWER TO THE PEO­PLE

In the US, re­search firm JD Power has been sur­vey­ing new car own­ers about qual­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues for 29 years. Its Ini­tial Qual­ity Study looks at the first 90 days of own­er­ship; the Ve­hi­cle De­pend­abil­ity Study ex­am­ines the first three years (see graphs).

Brands are ranked from best to worst, and spe­cific mod­els are ranked in their classes. Re­sults are ex­pressed as prob­lems per 100 ve­hi­cles (PP100).

JD Power is not the firm that does the ARC sur­vey. The same brands that keep ARC re­sults se­cret in Aus­tralia co-op­er­ate in the US with JD Power and ac­cept the pub­lic’s right to know the re­sults.

“If you’re not held pub­licly ac­count­able, there is no in­cen­tive to fix some­thing,” says JD Power’s David Amodeo.

“Ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency ab­so­lutely pro­duce bet­ter out­comes for con­sumers, with safer and more re­li­able cars.”

The 2018 ini­tial qual­ity study re­sults were stun­ning. The top three brands were South Korean. Gen­e­sis — Hyundai’s new lux­ury brand launch­ing here later this year — took first place, fol­lowed by Kia and Hyundai it­self.

“It’s the re­sult of re­lent­less hard work, fo­cus and ded­i­ca­tion by the Kore­ans,” Amodeo says.

We can’t con­firm the same out­come in the ARC sur­vey. JD Power re­sults are, for the time be­ing, as ac­cu­rate a guide to the rel­a­tive per­for­mance of brands as we are go­ing to get, as Orr ac­knowl­edges.

“JD Power is well-re­spected in­ter­na­tion­ally and their data is prob­a­bly pretty good,” he says.

Show­ing greater frank­ness, our in­dus­try source says: “The Kore­ans aren’t com­ing — they’re here. Buy­ers are op­por­tunis­tic now and this is the age of the cus­tomer, so most brands are try­ing very hard to im­prove qual­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and cus­tomer ser­vice.

“The Aus­tralian car in­dus­try can ei­ther hide from the con­ver­sa­tion or take con­trol of it.”

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