[CARS] Getting No Respect

As vehicle dependability continues to rise, your chances of being stranded by the side of the road with a dead car are down.

But some car brands are finding that consumer perception lags behind their dependability story.

That’s the big news out of this year’s edition of the just-released J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study. Apparently, 25 of 36 vehicle brands improved in long-term dependability in 2010 compared with their performance in 2009, continuing a steady uptrend of industry-wide vehicle dependability. But according to the research firm, Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, Lincoln and Mercury are just not getting the props they deserve.

Car Brand Perception vs. Reality
The study measures problems that original owners of three-year-old (in this case, 2007 model year) vehicles experiment, including 198 different problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. Overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality.

This year, Porsche led the “nameplate” rankings with a mark of 110. Lincoln was second at 114, and Buick and Lexus tied at 115. But perhaps the bigger news is that several brands that scored above industry average — among them Lincoln, Buick, Mercury, Ford, Hyundai and Cadillac — still find themselves shunned by a portion of the buying public, due to concerns about their dependability.

According to J.D. Power and Associates, among brands included in the study, Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, Lincoln and Mercury have the greatest discrepancy between actual dependability and consumer perception. At the same time several brands that are generally well-regarded for dependability — including BMW, Volvo, Nissan, Mazda and Scion — were ranked below the industry average.

“Producing vehicles with world-class quality is just part of the battle for automakers; convincing consumers to believe in their quality is equally important,” said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. “It takes considerable time to positively change consumer perceptions of quality and dependability — sometimes a decade or more — so it is vital for manufacturers to continually improve quality and also to convince consumers of these gains.”

What Car Brand Manufacturers Can Do
According to Sargent, car manufacturers can take several approaches to help reinforce perceptions of high quality in consumers’ minds. They can provide extended warranties, which demonstrate a brand’s faith in its products; incorporate features, materials and finishes in cars that have a rich feel; and ensure that new car models launch with better quality than their predecessors. In addition, automakers need to increase communication efforts about their high quality and dependability through social media, like blogs, Facebook and Twitter, aside from traditional channels.

The vehicle dependability study is used extensively by vehicle manufacturers worldwide to help design and build better vehicles, which typically translates to higher resale values. Consumers can benefit from the study by making more informed choices for both new- and used-vehicle purchases. Among new-vehicle shoppers, perception of quality and dependability is the most influential factor in their decision to purchase a specific vehicle model.

The 2010 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 52,000 original owners of 2007 model-year vehicles. The study was fielded in 2009, between October and December.

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about vehicle dependability and reliability.

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