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Automakers have a love/hate relationship with J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study depending on how their vehicles perform. But how relevant or meaningful is this study by the California-based research company to consumers?

The report is based on feedback from vehicle buyers after just three months of ownership. As consumers know, major quality problems often develop considerably later in a vehicle’s life.

What the study does reveal often has more to do with buyer satisfaction than with actual quality.

For example, the Hummer H2 scored at the bottom of the 2004 rankings. Why? A leading complaint was bad fuel consumption. Is that a reflection of poor quality or a puzzling absence of reason among buyers of a vehicle that clearly is going to be a gas guzzler?

The Power survey should be taken at face value by consumers as a reliable guide to the quality of a model or an automaker. The devil is in the details. For instance, an automaker’s overall ranking could be adversely affected by the launch of a large number of new vehicles, which often experience early quality issues.

But that doesn’t mean that the automaker in question has lost its focus on quality. A case in point is Porsche AG. The German company’s 911 model took top place in the premium sports car category and its European factory won a gold award. Yet Porsche saw its overall initial quality ranking plunge 36 percent to third from last. The culprit: the new Cayenne sport utility vehicle, which was criticized for ergonomic problems.

A similar fate befell Nissan, which last year entered the large truck market with several new models for the first time. Conversely, brands that introduced few new models, notably Buick and Mercury, scored very well. The real test will come when these nameplates start to introduce new designs.

An examination of the study’s individual categories also reveals some inconsistencies, mainly due to segmentation that fails to reflect the extraordinarily fragmented nature of today’s market. Surely the Acura TSX and Ford Thunderbird are not really competitors for the Cadillac CTS in the entry luxury car category.

Some misgivings aside, the 2004 study spotlights some interesting trends. Japan’s quality control is vulnerable. Lexus, Toyota’s upscale offshoot and a benchmark of dependability, slipped 14 percent in the nameplate rankings. The Koreans and Detroit’s automakers continue to gain. Hyundai did spectacularly well and Cadillac ranked second behind Lexus.

The good news for consumers: virtually all automakers are doing a better job with quality. Certain Japanese brands still lead the field, but the numbers also indicate that choosing a product from GM, Ford or Chrysler is a smarter decision than it has been for years.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at [email protected].
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