Last March I shared some preliminary car reliability stats for the FIAT 500 and new Volkswagen Passat. The 500 looked very good at the time. The Passat was at the other extreme. Another three months have passed, and TrueDelta’s car reliability stats have been updated to include owner experiences through the end of March 2012. In these updated stats, the FIAT remains excellent while the Passat has improved. But in J.D. Power’s annual Initial Quality Survey (IQS), released yesterday, they’re both awful. What gives?
The 2012 VW Passat isn’t a puzzle. At 73 repair trips per 100 cars per year in TrueDelta’s stats, it’s faring much better lately, but remains about 50 percent worse than the average. We consider this (barely) “yellow” rather than “red” because the average is quite low. J.D. Power isn’t so kind, as its ratings are based on percentiles. If a model is in the bottom 30 percent, it gets the lowest score, two stars. (There is no “one star” score.) The absolute difference between a car’s problem rate and the average problem rate is not a factor. If models are tightly bunched around the average this absolute difference could be quite small even for a “two star” model. We have no way of knowing because numerical stats are not released to the general public.
One other factor: when problems occur. Judging from responses to TrueDelta’s survey, problems with the 2012 Passat seem most prevalent during the first few months of ownership. Now that many owners have had their cars for more than three months, the average repair frequency has improved. But J.D. Power only asks about the first 90 days of ownership. The firm also defines “quality” very broadly, though perhaps not so broadly that a dime store clock counts as a problem.
At 8 repair trips per 100 cars per year, the FIAT 500s in TrueDelta’s survey remain nearly repair-free. J.D. Power, on the other hand, not only gives the 500 two stars, but the FIAT brand (with the 500 its only model so far) tied smart for last:
How might this huge disparity be explained? I checked an active forum for the 500 to see if owners were reporting many problems. Active forums tend to make cars seem more troublesome than they actually are, as people with car problems tend to be vocal while those without them keep quiet. My search found two possibly common problems and one inherent design flaw: a gearshift knob that can break off, a creaky driver’s seat, and an “A/C on” light too dim to see in daylight. The first two were reported by only a few owners on a forum with over 2,000 members. The last was reported by more members, no surprise as it affects every single car. Could this dim light be responsible for the 500’s poor IQS score? Unfortunately, J.D. Power doesn’t publicly divulge the specific problems behind its ratings. Until there’s a fix, this particular problem won’t show up in TrueDelta’s stats. A creaky seat also wouldn’t show up until the owner has it fixed. It’s a minor issue so many might wait until the car needs to go to the dealer for something else. With J.D. Power’s survey, owners can report anything they don’t like about the car, even if they have no plans to have it fixed. Notably, none of these problems suggest that the 500 is a lemon that should be avoided.
A year ago I called Ford out for trying to preempt an upcoming bad IQS ranking by blaming their buggy MyFord Touch (MFT) system. TrueDelta’s survey responses suggested that their cars suffered from additional problems. Well, this year they trotted out the MFT excuse again. The story is a little different this time: the system has been fixed, just too late to help their IQS scores. While MFT is no doubt a major factor behind Ford’s IQS showing, it’s again not the only factor. For example, the Ford Explorer very commonly has problems with rattling A-pillar trim and mirror turn signal condensation. These aren’t major problems, but they have persisted into the car’s second model year. Ford seems to be finding and fixing such problems much more slowly than, say, VW (which aggressively investigated and resolved initial problems with the Passat). More evidence that MFT isn’t solely responsible for Ford’s poor IQS showing: the new Focus scores well in both surveys.
Any survey takes a snapshot at a point in time. Will the VW Passat continue to improve? Might FIAT 500 owners start reporting some truly serious problems? Will Ford start tackling common problems that have nothing to do with MFT now that they’ve (allegedly) fixed the system? TrueDelta will update its car reliability stats again in August. The more people participate, the more models we can cover and the more precise these stats will be.
To view TrueDelta’s updated repair trips per year stats:
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability information.