MB Fails IQ Test
Car czars say the craziest things! In 2002, GM CEO Rick Wagoner said hybrids were only applicable to Japan, where gas cost $4 a gallon. About the same time, Flyboy Bob Lutz ridiculed edgy-looking, proto-300C concept cars as 'angry appliances'. And now Mercedes chief Eckhard Cordes says MB may no longer strive to top JD Power's survey of initial quality (IQ). For a brand whose reputation once rested on the bedrock of bullet-proof build quality, Mercedes' potential capitulation to the forces of mediocrity is startling– in the worst possible, most memorable way. If Jeopardy had a category 'Things Auto Execs Shouldn't Have Said', Cordes remark would only be a $100 answer.
From a PR perspective, Cordes' remarks are an unmitigated disaster. If there's one thing Americans hate more than a $80k German sedan with dodgy electrics– I mean, a loser, it's a sore loser. In J.D. Power's 2004 Initial Quality survey, Mercedes-Benz clocked-in at number ten, with 106 problems per 100 vehicles. (Lexus was first, with 87 problems per 100 vehicles.) When the tenth ranked company suggests it no longer aspires to the top slot in the most widely recognized measure of who builds the best damn car on the planet, it's the very definition of sour grapes, in a seven-year-old kinda way. Who cares about YOUR stupid quality survey ANYWAY? I'm going to do my OWN survey. So THERE.
From a more emotionally detached and rational perspective (i.e. from the POV of a German head of a German company), the man's got a point. After dropping the bombshell on his own foot, Cordes went on to say 'In order to become [number] one in J.D. Power, it is not only about hardware quality. It also has to do with the American taste, how they want cars.' In other words, if ain't broke, but Americans don't like the way it looks, feels or works; it still counts against you. Cordes noted that JD will mark down a car's initial quality if the steering wheel has too many buttons on it.
It's not the best possible example; it's hard to imagine a Merc owner bitching about the complexity of his steering wheel controls when the nearby dash has more buttons than the flight deck of an AWACS aircraft. And careful readers will note Herr Cordes' use of the phrase 'hardware quality'; the majority of Mercedes' current reliability issues are software-related. But, in the main, he's right. And if quality includes design, multi-national Mercedes could be screwed even before the driver's door kick panel falls off. Americans might view a paddle shift transmission as an unwelcome complication, whereas Italian drivers would consider it engineering genuis. As Cordes put it, 'One has to carefully analyse whether with a global car it is really advisable to strive for being J.D. Power number one.'
Obsessive pistonheads will recall that MINI also ran afoul of JD's methodology, when the runabout's German masters forgot to direct its English designers to include cupholders for the American market. And the Porsche Cayenne stumbled at the starting line, when Stuttgart's engineers figured it was OK for one key fob press to open the driver's door and two clicks to open all the doors– as long as they were performed at PRECISELY TIMED INTERVALS. As someone who regularly fails to open the back doors of his Cayenne while holding a terrible two-year-old, I can certainly agree that bad design is a bitch. But the popular definition of 'quality' has more to do with bits not falling off than not being able to corner with a Venti bold between your legs.
Unlike Mr. Cordes, I've raised questions about the integrity of JD Power's results before. If nothing else, I find it worrying that Mr. Powers' minions sell customer survey services to the very same manufacturers and dealers that it rates on behalf of consumers. It's also important to keep in mind that JD Power dominates the automotive ratings game like AC Nielsen once dominated TV ratings. Does absolute JD Power corrupt absolutely? Who guards the guardian? Maybe Consumer Reports, a non-profit consumer advocacy group (albeit with extremely well-paid executives), should release a survey of survey companies. Would JD consider it fair if Consumer Reports rated the design of JD's questions as well as the quality of their results?
In any case, my sympathy for Mercedes only goes so far. Their defense– we can't please all of the people all of the time– is misleading; JD's respondents judge multi-market Lexus products by the same criteria as they rate Mercedes'. Although his remarks are entirely justifiable, Cordes will eventually wish he'd kept his mouth shut and built better cars.
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