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How to choose a high-quality car

Car speedometer, excellent rating close up. 3d illustrationn Photo by stock.adobe.com

If you’re looking for advice on buying a problem-free car or light truck, you might read expert evaluations in car-buff magazines or ask a friend who has experience with a car brand that interests you. The latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS) is yet another excellent source of information.

For 34 years, the consumer-research firm has queried new-car buyers about their purchases after 90 days of ownership and again after three years of ownership. As it turns out, the 90-day IQS is a good predictor of three-year dependability. For 2020, more than 87,000 owners participated in the IQS.

But what is quality? You might think of uniform gaps between a vehicle’s body panels, the absence of hard-plastic interior surfaces, and whether the doors shut with authority. But the IQS covers much more—basically anything that fails or doesn’t perform as expected.

Today’s cars are laden with tech, and the 2020 study had new questions about advanced driver-assistance features, infotainment systems, and cell phone apps. “Consumers would rather change their choice of vehicle than their choice of phone, so the phone pairing had better work,” says Dave Sargent, VP of automotive quality at J.D. Power.

The 2020 study ranked 31 automakers according to the number of problems per 100 vehicles; the average was 166. “A lower number of problems reflects higher quality,” Sargent says.

Dodge and Kia tied for first, each with a score of 136. Another tie followed: Chevrolet and Ram at 141 each. Genesis (142), Mitsubishi (148), Buick (150), GMC (151), Volkswagen (152), and Hyundai (153) rounded out the top 10.

At the other end of the spectrum were Mazda (184), Acura (185), Porsche (186), Subaru (187), Chrysler (189), Jaguar (190), Mercedes-Benz (202), Volvo (210), Audi (225), and Land Rover (228). The remaining 11 automakers fell into the middle.

Although not officially ranked, Tesla would have been at the bottom of the barrel, with a score of 250. Tesla didn’t cooperate with J.D. Power, but the firm gathered enough data anyway to come up with the score. Tesla had problems with its assembly quality, not with its electric powertrains.

Some takeaways:

  • Dodge rocks. For the first time in IQS history, a Detroit automaker ranked No. 1. Other homeboys—Chevy, Ram, Buick, and GMC—scored high, too.
  • Kia rocks. This year’s first-place tie put the South Korean automaker at the top for the sixth year in a row. “An extraordinary run,” Sargent says.
  • Japanese marques, not so much. Favorites Honda and Toyota, each with a score of 177, ranked below average.
  • Prestigious brands disappoint. Vaunted German automakers Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche were among the worst performers. Korean brand Genesis was the only premium brand in the top 10.
  • Simplicity wins. Premium brands often have complex tech features that befuddle owners. User-unfriendly infotainment systems accounted for nearly a quarter of all problems reported in the 2020 IQS.
  • Maturity wins. Vehicles that have been on the market for a while (several Dodge models, for example) and that have worked out any bugs tend to score well in the study.

Note that individual models may do better (or worse) than the brand overall. For instance, Jaguar had one of the worst scores overall, but its E-Pace SUV had the highest score among its competitors in the small premium SUV segment, which included the Lexus UX and BMW X2.

To view the IQS rankings by vehicle category, scroll down to Award Summaries at jdpower.com.

Peter Bohr helps you get the best value for your automotive dollar. Email westways@aaa-calif.com or write to Drive Smart, Westways, PO Box 25222, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5222.

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