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I've said it before and I'll say it again... show me the data and I can skew it to support any assumption you like.

By John McElroy, Jul 7 2004

Quality studies are useful comparison tools but media reports rarely put their results in the proper context.

Pity the poor consumer who tries to make heads or tails out of all the quality studies out there. They sure can be confusing.

In the latest Total Quality Award from Strategic Vision, Volkswagen is at the top of the list. But in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study (IQS) VW is near the bottom. If you want to know what Consumer Reports thinks, well, first sign up and pay your dues.

The problem is, these studies all measure different aspects of quality.

Unfortunately, the mass media don’t have time to delve into these distinctions, so all we get is sound-bite analysis that depicts the Big Three as being behind “foreign auto makers.”

Actually, they’re only behind Toyota, Honda and BMW, which consistently lead almost every list. But these aren’t the only foreign auto makers. Of the 10 worst brands on the IQS, eight are “foreign.” You never hear about that.

Then too, the rankings can be suspect. In the J.D. Power IQS, Honda is in the 4th spot with 99 defects, while Buick is 5th with 100 defects. Keep in mind this is the number of defects per 100 vehicles, so the actual difference between any one car from these brands is only 0.01 defect.

Should Buick knock its brains out to close that gap? Or is there really any gap at all? Couldn’t this just be “noise” in the system? Besides, are Buick’s older buyers simply more forgiving than Honda’s younger ones? We don’t know.

Part of the reason we don’t know is that J.D. Power does not show its results in a consistent fashion to the press, making it difficult to compare results from year to year. Moreover, unless you have complete access to the full study, you have no idea of the kind of defects that are being reported (they certainly do not make the full report available to journalists).

If one brand has a high preponderance of engines blowing up, and another has rattles in the ashtrays, all we see is that both brands had defects. J.D. Power does weight the severity of defects, but we never see what goes into that weighting.

Strategic Vision doesn’t measure defects. It interviews consumers and translates their responses into groups of “feelings” that it uses to rank the quality of cars. I’m sure this very Mazlow-vian approach is worthwhile, but I’m also sure members of the media would laugh out loud if they knew they were reporting on “feelings.”

Consumer Reports surveys its subscribers for its quality ratings, so we’re only getting an accurate read of what its readers think. I’m not convinced this is a statistically accurate sample of the total car-buying public. But it doesn’t matter since CR’s ratings are so influential that perception becomes reality in what the media report.

It’s very valuable to measure the quality of vehicles and make that information available to the industry and the public. But make sure you understand what’s being measured and put it in its proper context.

– John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and Speed Channel.
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