J.D. Power Finds Gap Between Asian, Domestic Brands Closing

Domestic automakers are closing the gap in initial quality and longer-term durability departments versus imports, but Toyota and Honda still lead GM, Ford and Chrysler.

While Ford's own quality rating puts Ford slightly below Toyota in initial quality, and well below Honda, J.D. Power & Associates' 2006 Initial Quality Survey (IQS) and Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) rankings put Lexus and Toyota on top, with 11 out of 19 segment awards in 2006. Lexus topped every segment it competes in and sibling Toyota capturing five model-level awards. But in the VDS, the second- through fourth-place brands are Mercury, Buick and Cadillac. Toyota is number five overall.

Neal Oddes, J.D. Power's director of product research and analysis, says there is still "a pretty large gap between Asian and domestic brands, but that gap is closing," he says, explaining that in the consultancy's 2003 durability study the gap between domestics and Japanese brands was 40 problems per 100 vehicles. He says it is now at around 26 problems per 100 vehicles. He says domestics are making progress on improving quality at a quicker pace than Toyota "because it's harder to make improvements in leaps and bounds when you are already doing so well [in terms of vehicle quality and durability]," he says.



Domestics have also improved dramatically in product launches. "And that's critical to initial and sustained quality," he says.

Alex Rosten, analyst with Edmunds AutoObserver.com, says most manufacturers' quality is now concentrated around the mean, meaning the difference in ranked places in studies like J.D. Power's is becoming relatively slim. "The fact is all the vehicles built nowadays are high-quality vehicles, and, quite honestly, neither GM nor Ford would offer the kinds of warranties they do if that weren't the case," he says. "So, while the perception among consumers is that Toyota and Honda make much better cars, it isn't true. Toyota last year had more recalls than the domestic makes, Rosten notes.

Edmunds has just released its own numbers detailing vehicle consideration by web site traffic behavior during the month of March.

In large trucks, 24% of Edmunds.com visitors last month viewed Toyota's new Tundra, followed by 22% viewing Chevrolet's new Silverado, and 20% studying F-150. In small cars, Ford's Focus was the only domestic in the Top 10, and it was in ninth place for consideration, with Honda's Civic, the far-away leader, with 22.5% consideration. Mazda 3 followed with 9.9%, and Corolla was third with 8.8%.

In midsized and large cars, again, Honda, Toyota and Nissan dominated with Accord, Camry and Altima, the latter two redesigned. Saturn's new Aura sedan was close behind. Chevrolet and Ford were sixth and ninth with Impala and the older Fusion, respectively. Accord is notable because it still led consideration though it hasn't been redesigned in two years.

In the crossover category, Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia are high on consideration lists of Edmund's visitors looking for car-based SUVs, garnering first and second place with just over 17% of traffic each, with Honda's pilot in third place. And, not surprisingly, given Big Three dominance in the large SUV category, Chevy Tahoe garnered 46.7% of web traffic to Edmunds.com last month, followed by a GMC SUV, Yukon, with 18.9%. Toyota's Sequoia was third.

"The newer products are getting the most attention," says Rosten. "The Silverado, the Tahoe and Yukon just came out last year - they have managed to increase consideration because they are new," he says, adding that Camry, Altima, Aura, and Impala are all newer than Fusion.

Power's Oddes says one can imply from shifts in J.D. Power's study of customer retention, a proxy for brand loyalty, that consumer perception of domestic-brands' quality has improved.

"For example, over the years we have seen Chevrolet, which was number one a few years ago for retaining customers, lose that status. But what I've seen over the past year is that [domestic brand loyalty] is getting better, and what that says is that consumers are becoming aware of quality benefits, that they are less worried about being inconvenienced. They are still leaving the domestic brands, but it's diminishing."

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