Automotive Quality: Zen and the Art of Warm Fuzzies

Matthew Danda
by Matthew Danda

During one of my first job interviews, the HR guy threw me a curve ball. How do you define quality? The question stopped me cold. I’d just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the main character went insane trying to answer that same question. I don’t remember what I said, but thus began a long-term intellectual exploration. I know this website has tried to define this seemingly nebulous term many times, but here’s what I’ve been thinking.

In software engineering, ISO 9126 defines quality according to six characteristics: functionality, reliability, usability, efficiency, maintainability and portability. Domestic automakers use similar design, performance and longevity parameters to bible stack swear they’re building quality products (these days).

And yet American consumers ain’t buyin’ it (literally). They continue to believe that The Big 2.8 have lower quality automobiles than foreign or transplanted product. The domestics dismiss the apparent discrepancy as a “perception gap.”

Clearly, there is a semantic disconnect. Part of the problem: when it comes to cars, there are hundred of ways to measure “quality.” Is quality determined by materials, acoustics, ergonomics, design, dynamics, reliability or some combination of these and other factors? In what order? Without a specific definition, quality becomes a meaningless term. For example…

My 1988 VW Scirocco 16V had a splendid black leather interior, drove beautifully and consumed transmissions and Pirellis on a regular basis. I also owned a 1995 Ford Escort GT. It never broke down, the seats were living hell and the car drove like a Maytag washer. Both of these car had similar performance characteristics (horsepower, acceleration, grip).

The Volkswagen offered a superior driver-machine connection and curb appeal, with limited reliability and expensive repair costs. The Ford was dynamically inferior, but reliable and cheap to maintain. They were both high quality; they were both low quality.

And what of relative (does it beat the competition) and absolute quality (does it get the job done)? In other words, automotive quality is both subjective AND individual. What, exactly, do you want the vehicle to do? Can you tolerate breakdowns? What are your specific requirements for things such as cost, fuel efficiency, seating capacity and performance? What about the feel of the leather or the amount of steering feedback?

The Biz school def of quality may be our best guide. They define quality as a product or service’s ability to satisfy its customer’s desires. Using this formula, relative satisfaction determines relative quality. If a car “delights” the customer (a nauseating MBA term for sure), it’s considered a “higher quality” vehicle than one that just gets on with the business of meeting expectations.

Most automakers miss the overarching implications of this definition. They obsess over vehicular reliability– the numbers of defects and cycles until failure– because they believe (rightly) that customers find the maintenance process an unpleasant experience. Any subsequent loss of transportation and cash results in a dramatic loss of customer satisfaction, thus lowering perceived quality.

It’s generally acknowledged that the world’s largest carmaker keeps its customers happy by building the most reliable cars. And the automotive media’s fascination with quantifiable comparisons certainly fans the flames of this objective data OCD. But preventing pain is not as important as creating happiness, and again, happiness is the key to automotive quality.

My Escort-owning experience proved (at least to me) that subjective happiness is a better measure of perceived quality than a lack of pain. A car may not break down once during an owner’s tenure (the automaker’s Holy Grail), but an owner may still consider it a POS after five years.

And yes, you CAN engineer-in happiness. Depending on the consumer’s predilections, an exterior that delights them throughout their ownership experience is as important a measure of quality as a reliable engine.

By the same token, after-sale service is an extremely important determinant of an automobile’s perceived quality. A given Lexus may break down more than a given Cadillac, but a bad (or just ugly-looking) dealership can easily instantly obviate the Caddy’s (theoretical) mechanical advantage.

It’s seems bizarre that carmakers leave overall customer happiness to the vagaries of profit-oriented dealers, mechanics, service stations and other third parties of the automotive service industry. But they do.

You could even say that automakers relentless pursuit of quality is headed in the wrong direction. Instead of obsessing over the hunk of metal and plastic on the floor, they should be looking at the amount of customer happiness. And not just at day one, but at day 3,650 and beyond.

Manufacturers seeking to produce quality cars should commit themselves to delighting customers throughout the entire ownership experience, at every single point of contact: dealership, internet, everywhere. Trying to quantify quality may be enough to drive anyone crazy, but focusing on customer happiness will keep a car company– any car company– in business.

Matthew Danda
Matthew Danda

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  • Nick Nick on May 30, 2007

    Just wanted to post this follow-up about my rental Charger as I mentioned it's seemingly appalling mileage. Well, scratch the 'seemingly'. I filled it up today and calculated the mileage as, get this, 10.6 mpg. 10.6!!! I used to have a 440 4 bbl got better mileage. Unreal.

  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Jun 16, 2007

    OK, it's subjective. So why are the big 2.5 still loosing market share to the Japanese cars? Can't they at least figure out what their customers want - personality, ergonomics, reliability- then give them that one thing? I've enjoyed driving Corvettes, Porshes, and even a Ferrari once. But I don't think I'd enjoy owning them, not on my income. I own Hondas. I need reliability so that I know -w/in reason- what my true ownership costs will be. Besides, how important is sports car handling when your going to the supermarket?

  • Kcflyer hang in there Lexus. Keep making the IS with the V8 and sooner or later I will buy a new one :)
  • 1995 SC I'll take Mystichrome. And a different car
  • Wolfwagen I wish I could afford one of these except that stupid short master. Has no one learned from the Hummer H2 SUT?
  • 1995 SC Any Tom Petty album
  • Wolfwagen Another Democratic green energy boondoggle. Have they even paid for the clean up at Solyndra yet? I wish some investigative journalist would follow the damm money to see how much is going into the pockets of the DNC and Politicians and donors