By on May 29, 2007

vwscirocco.jpgDuring 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.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

62 Comments on “Automotive Quality: Zen and the Art of Warm Fuzzies...”

  • avatar

    The average (North American?) consumer doesn’t care much about anything but reliability.

    So far as the masses are concerned, a car is a refrigerator with wheels.

    And even fridges don’t last the 20 years or so that used to be customary.

    What the average owner wants is a conveyance that will last 120,000 miles, or ten years and NEVER need repair (even tires).

    Much like the dentists of this world, we garage owners are in the bad news business.

    So it’s not surprising that a really bad car gets a good rating from its owner if it rarely breaks down.

    This website caters to a small and dedicated group that is very much in the minority in its appreciation of the finer points of the motoring life.

  • avatar

    I don’t pretend to measure quality. As you note, quality means different things to different people. So those that do claim to measure quality (IQS) will more often than not define it differently than the great majority of consumers.

    The real problem is that these consumers will then turn around and assume that a measure like the IQS defines quality the same way they do. While more often than not it doesn’t.

    The IQS was discussed in this earlier TTAC editorial:

    With my own research, at, I’ve chosen to focus on something simpler, reliability, with an easy to understand metric, the number of repair trips.

    I leave it to individuals to take the results of this research and combine it with whatever else (much of which is best gained from a personal test drive) to arrive at a personal measure of a car’s quality.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Warranty claims and parts sales promptly identify unreliable components. The Big-3 allow years to pass without correcting defects exacerbating their well-deserved image for lousy quality and wretched customer care. GM’s defective 3.4-liter engine intake manifold gasket is a prime example.

    In my experience Japanese cars are so durable dealers cheat to improve service department profitability. Selling superfluous items at outrageous markups including euphemistically termed chemical services, assorted engine, motor, transmission and other additives and treatments is a widespread abuse that will one day haunt the manufacturers.

  • avatar

    I have a client with a Japanese car (name begins with N)who was given lifetime free oil changes when she bought the car.

    Her first years service cost her over $1000. At every service interval, sure she got a free oil change, but she also got a wheel alignment and an injector cleaning, not to mention an additive in the “free” oil, another in the fuel tank, another in the power steering and a final one in the transmission.

    She’s back dealing with us now,because the salesman who told her she couldn’t go anywhere but the dealership for service in order to maintain her warranty is a bit short on credibility at this point in time!

  • avatar

    This is a good piece. I especially like:
    “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.”

    One day, a smart carmaker will offer consumers a lease in which everything, yes EVERYTHING is covered at the dealer: maintenance, repairs, wipers, tires, inspections, loaners, everything. Even an annual detailing service and wax job. On new and CPO cars.

    There are a lot of consumers out there who want to know that this one payment every month is all they ever have to pay. For them, that’s quality.

  • avatar

    Such a lease, I would estimate, would cost at least $1000 a month for a small car. Not even practical I suggest. How long would “everything” be covered? For life? And would you also cover brakes and clutches and all the other things that consumers and bad drivers abuse?

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Your article is an excellent attempt to define the nature of the quality chimaera. I particularly liked the part about how long-term satisfaction is coupled to aesthetic quality.

  • avatar

    If I think back over my last 40 years of owning cars and what I remeber as the ones I considered to be a quality product none of the Big 3 ones come to mind. I know that AUDI had a terrible reputation for quality back in the mid 80's but my used Quatro Turbo stikes me as the best quality car I ever had. I think it was because a lot of maintenance I did on my own and when I wanted to do a brake job, change a bulb or a belt I didn't have to use a torch to unfreeze or cut off bolts. It came apart and went back together again with little effort. Also everytime I touched the interior with something it didn't leave a mark which led to it becomely continuously cruddy looking. When that car went to the wreckers after 12 years and 350,000 km. the tow truck driver thought he was picking up the wrong car. So even though I had my power steering pump, rack and electrical problems it never let me down and after 12 years it still looked good. I guess my impression of quality comes down to long term ruggedness and serviceability, and 10 years after I got it I you still went out and waxed and detailed it and had something you are proud of. I am attemptinh to keep my 1994 Olds Cutalss Supreme Convertible on the road with the same care and it is just hopeless. Interior and exterior put together with plastic clips that break everytime you touch them, reminds me of my toy cars when I was a child.

  • avatar

    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).

    Maybe, and I don’t disagree with your basic premise, but:

    – No effective software developers use ISO standards: if you want quality, there’s no substitute for testing. And more testing. And more testing. And more testing. Heck, people are starting to write the tests before they write the software now; turns out it’s good discipline for software design. For user interfaces, you conduct user testing.

    – I don’t believe it. They’ve been saying this since the mid-1980’s and we and our parents experienced positive proof otherwise in the same timeframe and for years afterward. My grandparents drove Fords and Lincolns. My parents inherited a shitty late 80’s Town Car and tolerated the mechanical and electronics issues, but the dealer experience drove them to Lexus. I had a new mid-90’s Saturn, which had the endearing trait that if I accelerated hard from a dead stop, the check engine light would come on. Not exactly the transmission falling out of the car, but our contemperaneous Hondas, Acuras, Toyotas, and Subarus were (and continue to be) trouble-free.

    – The top 3 automakers in Consumer Reports for long-term reliability? Honda, Toyota, Subaru.

  • avatar
    Jeff in Canada

    I like the idea of the vehicle that comes with everything included. I think they call these rental cars!, A Focus sedan, $1234 including insurance with 3000km’s for 1 month.
    Do you know anyone who will pay $1234 for a Ford Focus??

    Vehicle quality is simply measured by Owner Satisfaction. The 2002-2006 Mini Coopers have horrentous reliability records, owner forums are strewn with people who have had countless problems, but they are also some of the most satisfied owners out there. An excellent product will offset any reliability issues. I don’t mind my car being in the shop for a day, if the dealership makes the experiance as pleasing and simple as possible. Kind staff, Courtesy cars, competative pricing, and No Bullshit will make even having your routine maintenance enjoyable.

    That is more important than JD Powers IQS advertising ass kissing. 89 defects per hundred does not mean the customer is satisfied.

  • avatar
    Jeff in Canada

    The idea of having a vehicle with one monthly payment and EVERYTHING is covered already exists. They are called RENTAL cars! lists a 30 day rental for a Ford Focus at $1235CAD including insurance.
    Does anyone know anyone who would pay Porsche 911 money for a Ford, even with that much Peace of Mind?

  • avatar

    The stats that I have surveyed as an automotive researcher have one consistent message: QRD (Quality/Reliability/Dependability is going up overall. What the definition of QRD is varies, but all vehicles have been getting more of it (whatever it is). The worst of the Detroit 3’s currect vehicles are better today than the best of the best Japanese vehicles you could get as little as 5 years ago.
    However, as purchase price increases, people tend to maintain the vehicle better. This alone may explain a lot of the Detroit/Korean automaker issues.

    I am surprised that this discussion has not turned to how flaky the “official” metrics for reliability are in general (e.g. Consumer Reports). It is wonderful to struggle with the definition of quality and to realize that it differs from person-to-person. Perhaps each person needs to complete a “what type of quality do you value” battery before purchasing a vehicle.

  • avatar
    Adrian Imonti

    Nice article, and your focus on customer satisfaction hits the nail on the head, in both things automotive and otherwise.

    Regardless of what business you are in, the requirements of the customer should reign supreme. After all, those are the folks who provide you with your revenue and who will provide you with your best marketing — word of mouth — if you please them, so of course, they need to be in charge. In the election of the marketplace, if the customer votes with his money elsewhere, you end up in a tailspin (i.e. GM’s North American business.)

    I’d say that in the US automotive market, that requires that the automakers do most things pretty well so that they can be competitive. But the key to standing out from the competition in some way is to do one or two things exceptionally well, and then to build brand awareness around those qualities.

    The implication of that observation is that being “pretty good” at most things, but exceptional at nothing, is a sure one-way ticket to failure, because you can’t stand out from the crowd if you only strive for “pretty good”, while the lack of an exceptional quality or feature will help you to lose the sale to the guy who does have it. It’s true that mechanical reliability and durability are often strongly demanded product qualities among US car buyers, hence the market appeal of Toyota, Honda and the like. But an appealing design, cachet value, luxury or performance can substitute for reliability and durability in the minds of some customers, which has allowed niche brands such as BMW to also prosper.

    Unfortunately, Detroit’s problem is that it has the wrong customers — government and rental fleets — which has skewed its view of what serving the customer is all about, and has resulted in the vast majority of their products having no stand-out qualities that would give them market appeal. I would argue that the Big 2.5’s tendency to serve the wrong customers is one of the fundamental reasons why they are in trouble today.

  • avatar

    Quote to remember:

    But preventing pain is not as important as creating happiness, and again, happiness is the key to automotive quality.

  • avatar

    It is interesting that you mention a VW. Every time I see VW mentioned on the Internet, it is in conjunction with “poor quality”… my experience has been just the opposite, but you have pointed out exactly HOW I’ve come to that opposite conclusion than the vast majority of the herd.

    When I sit in a VW, it is blatantly obvious to me that a vast cadre of ergonomically obsessed engineers have spent their lifetimes making sure that switch and control positions are located properly. I had a 2-door GTI for a while in my twenties, as well as an old ’73 1303 as a commuter car (when my kids were little and our family Vanagon would not do for going to work.) If I folded the seat forward to allow somebody to climb in the back, I COULD STILL OPEN THE PASSENGER SIDE DOOR… that door latch was accessible whether the seat was forward, or back. The same held true for the New Beetle my wife bought in 1999. Literally NO OTHER 2-door car with a back seat I have EVER been in has an inside door handle located where it can be operated while the seat is in any position.

    Mind you that is but one minor example among a long list of minutia that adds up to the superior *engineering* I have found in VW products over the years.

    They have their faults as well, built-to-a-price odd choices of materials, parts that cost way too much, and some goofy, hard to work on mechanicals (New Beetle oil filter placement!) to name a few. However the “quality” of those little ergonomic, over-engineered, obviously considered things that have made me think of “high quality at a reasonable price” with regards to VW over the years. It has kept me a loyal, happy customer.

    They are great, well-engineered low/mid-priced cars. They just don’t inspire lust. The opposite end of the spectrum is my British engineered, ergonomic NIGHTMARE, a 1965 E-type Jaguar. That car was slapped together from the cheapest possible materials, with the least amount of thought but into the interior (it was an afterthought… body styling came first, engine came second, everything else came after they woke up from the bender at the local pub!) But my god is that car inspiring! It is a constant drain on my mechanical knowledge, with something always wrong with it… usually minor and annoying. An object of abject lust though, and I wouldn’t give it up for love or money. I would never, ever rely on it as daily transportation though. “Quality?” yes, but nothing like a VW. ;)


  • avatar

    “…after-sale service is an extremely important determinant of an automobile’s perceived quality…”

    This is a very important point. For example, the VW Phaeton was a very good car (well engineered, assembled by hand in an advanced factory) but sold (in the U.S.) by a dealer network that is generally negatively regarded. Personally, when shopping for a new car, a visit to a VW dealer was an unpleasant experience.

    I ended up purchasing a used Infiniti at a Chevy dealer. When I went to the Infiniti dealer to have some work done on my car, I was treated with respect and courtesy. Even though I had not purchased the car there, they offered me a loaner, washed my car, and steam cleaned the engine. That service (and my car’s fantastic reliability) has sold me on the quality of Infiniti as a transportation “appliance” and customer experience satisfaction.

  • avatar

    An Automotive Chautauqua for sure.

    I agree witht he escort, very reliable but boring, slow, uncomfortable, and all that. But hey, 32 mpg in town and no repairs. Something being done right with it.

    The real quality issues are handling, noise, and overall vehicle feel. yes , I consider my escort a POS but with 175K on the clock it has my respect.

  • avatar


    Every now and then auto mechanic Doug Flint, Jerry Flint’s son, has a VW article on his column at The Car Connection, and they’re not pretty. Here are a couple of them:

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    No effective software engineer uses ISO standards? Ha. Testing is part of the life cycle of a product, not an objective assessment of quality. Testing may help ensure a product meets quality standards, but it’s not a measure of quality. And you don’t really appreciate ISO and CMMI and things like that until you’re in a shop that *doesn’t* have them.

    This is a great topic. We’ve been faced with a similar quandary… our previous vehicle, a 2002 Ford Focus, was more reliable than our current 05 Legacy GT. It had an initial problem with the tires (mfr defect), one TSB to address the doors continually trying to lock, and randomly stalled at speed 2x (once when we bought it, and once when we sold it… it’s like it knew). The Legacy? Bad fuel injectors. Bad fan relay (resulted in replacing the ECM, and later, the relay when it was recalled). Stinky clutch (no fix for that other than learning to drive differently). Bad battery. Dash rattle. Brake rotors warped after just 2 years and had to be machined. The stock tires suck. Every mechanical bit we’ve had to have replaced required at least 1-2 weeks in the shop since parts were always backordered. We seem to have had worse luck than most… if it can go wrong on our LGT, it will.

    So what would we rather drive? The LGT, hands down. On one hand, we hate the reliability problems, but it delivers on fun without fail, time after time. The Focus? Ehhhh… not so much. It was a nice car, but it lacked on the ‘fun’ factor. Maybe long term the LGT would come out on top for reliability, but hell, our most reliable car was my 98 Integra. Go figure.

  • avatar

    chuckgoolsbee, I sort of get what you mean about VW.

    I am currently in a love-hate relationship with my 2000 VW Golf 1.8T. The first two years of owning this car were painful. Stuff broke, that shouldn’t have – o2 sensors, MAF sensors, glove box doors, window regulators, courtesy lights, turbo bypass valves, 4 replaced brake light switches…and the list goes on and on.

    Each of these items on their own were no big deal. But replacing many of those components 2 to 3 times in two years is too much.

    That said, the car currently has 120,000 miles and still runs like a beast. It’s fast, still feels “tight”, the body looks great, and only has a slight power steering leak.

    I’m conflicted on my next vehicle. I like my Golf, but I don’t want VW to work out the bugs on my nickel.

    I think my next car will be an Infiniti G35. Hopefully my cell phone won’t erase the I-key.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    Pretty crazy, isn’t it? Lexus seems to have this issue pretty well nailed and is going to continue picking up market share.

  • avatar

    zerofoo- nail on the head.
    I have a 98 A4 1.8t and it’s an enjoyable car, when it’s working. If the weather is clear, I drive my 88 300zx just so I don’t have to worry about fixing something else on the audi.

    I sold my 91 jetta because I was sick of having to fix stupid little things all the time. With the audi I’ve been fixing stupid BIG things and every time I start it up I worry about the next one.

  • avatar
    Alex Dykes

    Dealer experiences play a great role in consumer happiness. Buyers of most European brands (myself included) don't care about mechanical reliability quite as much because the dealers take care of the problem, give you a courtesy car of similar value to your own car and often take extra care to make the event as convenient as possible. Contrast this to buying a Buick: when you have a problem you drop the car off and you're on your own, no courtesy car, no warm fuzzies, no premium dealer experience. My 2000 Chrysler LHS had 2 warranty issues in 130,000 miles. They were incredibly minor problems but the entire service experience was much worse than my experience with Volvo. Dingy service department vs clean IKEA waiting area, no transport vs courtesy car, no attempt to placate the customer vs service department trained to pretend to care. When I add it all up I don't care that my V70R has been in the shop a number of times in it's short life. Why? Because I was never inconvenienced in the process.

  • avatar

    I read the question in the first paragraph and thought that it better look right, feel right and work right, and for a good long time too. Like everyone else, my quality assessment starts with the car interior and that makes the big 2.5's offerings less than attractive. The lousy fit and finish of the interiors have me wondering if similar corners are cut on the important mechanical components as well. This despite knowing that mechanical reliability is generally good across the board. Those of a certain age remember lubing the chassis and twiddling with the points/condenser/spark plugs every few thousand miles, not to mention fun with carburetors – really, quality and reliability today is darned good. Mention the old days to an under-30 and you might as well be talking about how a slide rule works…. And I'm annoyed at the continuing hierarchical approach to fit, function and features. I gave up on the big 2.5 after looking at a 300C and experiencing domestic rent-a-jalops, but it still seems they want to move you up in size with better quality. That said, my daughter's Audi A4 has more features than my son's Caddy STS and the fit and function is better too.

  • avatar

    Please don’t let the manufacturers see this piece!

    The hounding I recieve from multiple sources every time I go to a dealer is enough already. Maybe they should be less concerned about what the buyers think they want, and take a good shot at what buyers really want.

    If you ask me, the average citizen doesn’t know what he wants until you put it in front of him.

  • avatar

    Quality, and perception of quality is subjective. Industry standards when it comes to interior finishes, and mechanical performance / reliability is more objective.

    The majority of owners or with the popularity of leases lessors have no desire to perform any kind of maintenance work on cars.

    Franchised new car dealers with labour rates at over $100 per hour in most metro areas discourage performing maintenance on cars. Warranty work is free to the customers / lessor. When the customer goes to the franchised new car dealer for warranty work, he has annyoed, and its free. Imagine when the same customer has to actually pay!

    All manufacturers in their quest to cut their costs draw a fine line between quality and cost savings, often they cross the line into warranty hell.

    The level of electronics in any car is increasing, the amount of glitches and reflashing are increasing. These elctronics are propriatary to each individual manufacturer. Think about it, a PC is more generic than the electronics on a car.

    Manufacturers are challenged to have an acceptable CPO program. Is it the actual quality of the car, or the perceived peace of mind, and more important low money rates that are the “result levers” of the CPO cars?

    Customers react to financial incentives, and product novelty, and ideally having a no hassle ownership experience. The customers that have no understanding of ignition points, or dwell meters, are well aware that they will have “glitches” with whatever car they buy or lease.

    It costs money to keep customers happy, and create a happy environment for the customer.

  • avatar

    Customers having an unpleasant time is not anyones fault. Only way for things to work out is customers change their attitude and perspective. We have no power over others (AA meetings anyone?). We cannot change it for them. What are the priorities? happy people or cash strapped people, their are psychological, emotional, attitudinal, etc etc… consequences for all involved including ourselves. Lets accept reality, take responsibility (It might hurt a bit) and change ourselves (attitude and perspective).

  • avatar

    “I would argue that the Big 2.5’s tendency to serve the wrong customers is one of the fundamental reasons why they are in trouble today.”

    Agreed. 2.801 seemed to cater to people with lower expectations and those customers are becoming more demanding/aware thanks in large part to information gathered with Internet/Search Engine. 2.801 are scrambling to meet those higher expectations now.

    All I ask from a car is zero performance degradation (structural integrity) and zero defects for 10 years and 150,000 miles…And I dont want to pay a lot!

    Is that too much to ask?

  • avatar


    I only bring my cars to a pro mechanic if it is:
    * Under Warranty
    * A recall
    * Something that requires a tool I don’t have.

    Otherwise, I try and do all my own service and maintenance. I am not a mechanic by trade or training, but if I can do it, it can’t be too hard, right?

    99% of all bad customer service stories in the automotive world are due to people being taken advantage of by dealers because they are not knowledgable enough to call bullshit on the dealer or mechanic. When I do bring my car to a pro, I let them know I do my own work most of the time and why I’m bringing it to them. I’ve never been sold unneeded or bogus items because I call BS on them when they try it. I never return to a mechanic or dealer that does try it either.

    A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.


  • avatar
    Tommy Jefferson

    Forget all your reliability metrics and J.D. Powers awards.

    When are American car makers going to realize that consumers base their perception of “quality” on what they see with their eyeballs.

    When I’m sitting at a red light in my 1991 Honda Accord with 220,000 miles that has perfect paint, solid interior, original air conditioning, and is purring like a kitten, do I see any similarly nice 1991 Regals, Lesabres, Rivieras, or Park Avenues with 220,000 miles?

    Of course not.

    People base their opinions on quality by looking at the older cars they see sitting at red lights and pulling into the grocery store.

    You know which older cars give a better impression. It’s not the ones with washed-out paint, broken off door handles, and peeling plastic grills.

  • avatar

    I guess an extension of the business school term of delighting customers (I did an MBA…did you have to bring that term up again?) is that if the delight is so overwhelmingly out of proportion to what the person expects that almost anything and everything else becomes secondary. To me, this is epitomized by the first Cobra. Build quality was awful, it was hot, cramped and loud. There is a real AC Cobra in my neighbourhood, and listening to it thundering out it’s glorious sound makes everything else seem inconsequential. I could pull up a chair and listen to it for an hour. The same applies to a hemi powered rat rod I’ve seen on you tube. Maybe that isn’t strictly speaking quality at all, and is really a measure of how much pleasure you get from the car.

  • avatar

    @ SherbornSean and Jeff in Canada: All-inclusive car ownership programs do exist (at least in big cities), at a cost much less than a monthly rental from Hertz … they’re called car share. Here in Philadelphia, we have a non-profit called PhillyCarShare, which owns vehicles that it keeps scattered in dedicated on- and off-street parking spaces (“pods”) around the city. You just join PCS, annual fee, and then pay a small per-hour + per-mile fee for the driving that you do. Maintenance, cleaning, insurance, and gas are all included. The cars all have a computer system that logs your mileage, etc. Each member has an individual key fob that opens the car (the ignition key lives in the car) and each car has a gas card in the glovebox that members can use to fill it up when it gets low. You reserve the car you want to use (at the moment or ahead of time) online. They have a great selection of cars … Minis, Prii, Matrices, pickups, minivans, 3-series, A4s, Miatas, etc. It is the most amazing no-hassle car “ownership” experience imagineable. It’s high quality in Danda’s sense of the term, because it leaves the driver holistically satisfied. And if you use the car 2-3x/week or fewer, and for only an hour or two at a time (which describes most car use in this very big and dense city), it’s much cheaper than owning your own car. It’s really a brilliant idea, and they’re growing like crazy as a result. I think other big cities have similar services, though obviously I’m most familiar with Philadelphia.

    Check out the details online at

  • avatar

    SherbornSean “One day, a smart carmaker will offer consumers a lease in which everything, yes EVERYTHING is covered at the dealer: maintenance, repairs, wipers, tires, inspections, loaners, everything. Even an annual detailing service and wax job. On new and CPO cars.”

    BMW is doing this right now, right down to the wash each time the car is in service. 4 yrs maintenance included not just warranty work, they give you free BMW’s to drive while your car is in service. Its a std feature not just for leasing customers.

    Quality can easily be determined by how long a vehicle operates, looks and feels like it was when it was new. Quality to most consumers is directly related to unscheduled vehicle maintenance.

  • avatar

    I’d gladly endure a newer car with above average maintenance requirements if I could find one that drove like my old W124 1988 Mercedes 260E.

    Quality from that car was the wonderful ride, good handling at highway speeds, solid construction, and strange enough, its ability to dampen out all rain noise no matter how hard it was storming. I figured they must have figured out a way to make sound-deadening glass to make that car so quiet on the inside.

    From a “quality” of reliability the car was dreadful. Really dreadful. $5,000 in maintenance over a brief two year ownership period dreadful.

    Left me stranded on the side of the highway twice kind of dreadful.

    But, to me, it was worth every penny.

    Like with all my bad relationships, I only remember the good times.

    If I knew who made the modern equivalent to that car I’d be buying one today.

    Maybe quality in a car could be measured by its the ability to generate happy nostalgia.

  • avatar

    Tommy Jefferson I had a 91 Accord in its day it was it was head and shoulders superior to every comparable vehicle and you are right I still see many of them still running strong. Most are in great shape but I have seen a few beaten up ones too though.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    I believe Audis and BMWs are still sold and leased on a full maintenance basis. The manufacturer is responsible for maintenance during the warranty period, though tires may be excluded. In my experience the maintenance provided is minimal. One would be foolish to retain the car after the warranty matures.

    Full maintenance leases are also common in the commercial leasing sector. Companies that lease 800 or more vehicles don’t do their own maintenance.

    Until about the middle 1980’s full maintenance domestic car leases were fairly common.

  • avatar

    Absolutely, quality is subjective, and in many cases a matter of perspective.

    Where I live, many people have a much higher tolerance for “breakdowns” in their personal or work vehicles because they’re used to it with their agricultural equipment.

    Further, in most rural areas light trucks are 70-80% of what’s driven and are often regarded more as “tools” than private vehicles. Faced with heavier use than driving to Starbucks and back, breakdowns are often a fact of life. Sure, nobody likes them, but they’re much more accepted than in urban areas and are less likely to colour one’s future purchases.

    At least that’s my take. This would make a good article, if anyone felt they were qualified to take it on.

  • avatar
    Jeff in Canada

    Bah, sorry about the double post, PC issues.

    Regarding the BMW service plans, they are the most comprehensive. Cadillac offers a similar program, but from what I’ve read, is not as exstensive, or long, time wise. I have yet to discover the joys of BMW ownership, maybe someday, but I hear they not only give you a loaner car everytime yours is in for service, but they always try to upgrade as well. For example, you pull in in your 335Ci, they’ll give you a 545 loaner car, brilliant if you ask me. Give the customer a taste of the ‘next level’ That’ll keep them coming back.

  • avatar

    Manufacturers make a difference between scheduled maintenance as per their recommended maintenance schedule…that maintenance is free…the consumables, be it brakes pads, discs, tires, filters are not included in the free scheduled maintenance.

    The thought process is that a customer is using the consumables as he drives, and he will pay for them.

    Most manufacturers have retreaded from the full mantenance, paying for anything and everything on car.

    With the popularity of leases, the emphasis on achieving high residual values, and the vagueries of qualifying cars for CPO programs. A full maintenance car off lease, with its maintenance package expired, and its warranty close to expired, what is it worth.

    Some of these programs, requirements, puts cars in a “Best before” scenario.

  • avatar

    So let me see if I understand, the perception of quality is correlated to the amount of happiness that the customer receives…..mmmm and how do you define happiness? The more I think about this topic the more I think it is completely an irrational emotive by a person to an object. In other words, “I know it when I see it.”
    Isn’t that how the best legal minds in our system define pornography? Maybe automotive quality is a lot like pornography, but not nearly so exciting.

  • avatar

    Automakers’ big shots care little about repair and maintenance frustrations because they don’t experience them. Carefully prepped new cars arrive every few months as a free fringe benefit, lackeys take care of trips to the shop, and if there are any major problems another car appears magically.

    When GM decided it had to do something about the terrible reputation its dealers’ service departments had acquired, they didn’t change business practices. Instead they launched a PR campaign featuring a mythical Mr. Goodwrench. Flim-flam ’em, yeah, that’s the ticket!

  • avatar

    Just to further my idea, AGR is right. BMW does not pay for everything. They pay for scheduled maintenance only. But get a nail in your tire or wear through your brakes and see how much the dealer charges you.

    As to the cost, it isn’t really that high. I keep all the costs for my ’04 Accord on a spreadsheet, including maintenance, interest costs, repairs and depreciation. I average $200 per month, because I expect to keep the car 7 years. The costs are projected fall to $100/month after 7 years, because depreciation and interest costs are so low then.

  • avatar

    Very thought provoking, great article!

    The big 2.something do have a point on perception gap. There were some truly horrible American made cars in the 80’s and even into the 90’s. Whether the manufacturers like it or not people are judging the quality of GM, Ford, or Nissan on the quality of that 12 year old pick-up truck or econobox they own. Sure Ford and GM make better, more reliable cars now. But convincing someone who owned one of thier less than sterling efforts that “We’re okay now” is going to be a trick.

    From my own experience I owned various makes of mid 80’s to mid 90’s vehicles before I purchased my first (and last) brand new vehicle.
    The American cars broke down more frequently and were more difficult to repair when they did. By contrast, I bought a Nissan Sentra after an Escort vomited its transmission on I-4. The car was just as cramped and offered the same dismal driving experience as the two previous Escorts. But, it ran more reliably. When it did break parts were nowhere near as difficult to remove. You could tell that someone had actually looked at the engine bay and thought “Hey, the owner will have to change that some day”, rather than “screw ‘im, they done bought it, it’s thier problem”. Anyone who’s replaced a blower motor on an early ’90s Buick Century knows what I mean…

    This is improving now, thank God. Most mid 90s or newer American vehicles are built just as well or better than the competition at that price point. But it is hard to convince anyone of that that’s already been burned.

  • avatar

    SherbornSean “Just to further my idea, AGR is right. BMW does not pay for everything. They pay for scheduled maintenance only. But get a nail in your tire or wear through your brakes and see how much the dealer charges you.”

    While true BMW doesnt pay for “everything” they do pay for brake pads and rotors and some consumables.

    Take a look here

  • avatar

    Thanks for the correction — I salute BMW as just about the only company offering Americans free maintenance. It goes a long way to dispelling the “Break My Wallet” reputation, at least in the first 4 years of ownership.

    Is there a BMW available for $200/month that seats 5 and has a great manual transmission?

  • avatar


    “One day, a smart carmaker will offer consumers a lease in which everything, yes EVERYTHING is covered at the dealer: maintenance, repairs, wipers, tires, inspections, loaners, everything. Even an annual detailing service and wax job. On new and CPO cars.”

    Before Audi changed their policy, they did just that. I owned a 2002 Audi S4 in which EVERYTHING was covered (all maintenance, to include tires and brake pads) and Audi Mission Viejo offered free lifetime car washes at their dealership. I have to say, without hesitation, that eventhough my S4 was in the shop 24 days in 6 months, it was the best ownership experience I have ever had.

  • avatar

    I find it interesting that you show a VW Sirrocco as the pic for this post. My dad had one(a 1980), and it was the least reliable car I ever heard of. Was always broken down. Almost every major part was replaced. My dad told numerous people not to buy any VW product.

    I think tho, that most cars are very reliable these days. Amongst friend and family, I cant think of a major defect in a car anyone has had in decades. American, japanese, or Korean. The only things I can think of were minor annoying problems on my step moms Grand Cherokee. Lights, AC, and windows that stopped working long before they should have.

  • avatar

    interesting that a few people mention 1991 Honda Accords. My ex and her family had one that went more 200000 miles with no real work other than oil changes, and tires. Still running somewhere I think

  • avatar

    Great article Matthew. The perception of quality is all about the relative differences between the customers expectation and the product. Since every customer previous experiences are different, generally so are their expectations. That is why in my line of work (project management) setting client expectations is just as important as delivery. Adjusting customer expectations (after sales as inflated them) to what you can actually deliver makes for happy customers.

    What is deemed a fault can also vary with the market niche of the product. I used to have an E36 323is which was not a very mechanically reliable car. After 4 years the window seals had rotted away, the gearbox had failed and the radiator leaked. But I liked the way it drove and BMW was very pleasant about fixing the problems. While at the dealership I got a good impression of the sort of things that BMW owners complained about and most were very minor to the point of nit-picking. Expectations were clearly high. One brought his car into service to remove some warning sticker glue residue from his aluminum trim. I doubt most truck owners would consider that a fault.

  • avatar

    It’s truly amazing that Honda and Toyota demand such price premiums over GM vehicles with very dubious increase in quality. My vehicle history is as follows:

    1990 Ford Escort (worst car ever made; after 4 transmissions, I sued Ford)
    1994 Chevy Cavalier (wonderful car; 130K miles with no major issues, A/C finally quit, and I sold it. 36MPG on freeways)
    2002 Mercedes C230 Kompressor (looked great, reliability and fuel mileage was lousy, I don’t miss it).
    2002 Volkswagen TDi (45.3 real world MPG, runs great, timing belt service expensive, but otherwide a great car).

    My biggest issue with both American and Japanese auto makers is the lack of diesel models available here in the USA. When I went to Penang, Malaysia there were Accord CDI’s getting 50 MPG and going 0-100 km/h in 7 seconds. Ford sold an escort TDi in Germany that would blow the doors off my POS in 1992. Why isn’t that car here?

    I won’t buy a Japanese car, as they are too difficult to service myself. I’ve worked on many girlfriends’ Hondas to know I don’t want one myself.

    My next car will be a BMW 325i. It’s not as easy to service as the VW, but has a normal straight 6 engine and rear wheel drive. If the Japanese could keep it simple, that’s what I’d really consider quality. Otherwise, all my non-beater cars will be German made.

  • avatar

    To clarify the BMW consumables…in Canada BMW sells a package called Service Inclusive that covers pads, rotors, belts, wiper blades for a 3 Series for 36 month / 60,000 klms its $795 for 48 month / 80,000 klms its $ 1,875.

  • avatar
    Brian Tiemann

    If carmakers want to increase perceived quality and the dealer experience, they should stop sending the call-center minions after me after EVERY SINGLE SERVICE to run through the obligatory “Extremely satisfied, very satisfied, satisfied, not very satisfied, not satistfied at all?” litany of questions about the car’s quality and dealer experience.

    Though my car (Audi A3) is thus far trouble-free and a top-notch piece of performance and ergonomic engineering, It’s gotten so I dread taking the car in for its regular maintenance. If they’re trying to drive me to do my own oil changes in my garage, they’re on the right track.

  • avatar

    I gave up on GM back in the mid 80’s when my dad asked me to change the oil on his Chevy Chevette. I discovered that I had to remove the A/C compressor to get to the oil filter to change it.

    I was so pissed off that Chevy thought so little of their customers that they would make them remove the AC in order to perform routine maintenance.

    My friend had bought a new VW shortly thereafter. He showed me how the oil filter was positioned on top to allow for easy replacement. I was impressed. Why couldn’t GM think ahead?

    Made the mistake of buying a Dodge in 88. Found out they too did not leave any room to get to the oil filter. The only way to remove it was to punch it with a screwdriver. There was no room to grab it, or slip a wrap on it. Arrrrgh!

    My next car was a Mercedes 300E. I was impressed with how easy it was to work on. Simple things, like the fact that I could lift the hood up vertically to work on the motor was so nice. It was obious they had thought about it ahead of time.

    My point is, simple things can mean so much.

  • avatar

    Two points here:

    1) You measure quality by RESALE VALUE. The market doesn’t lie.

    2) There’s a HUGE difference between quality and owner satisfaction, as many here have detailed. There are many cars that are unreliable, or have major faults, but are nonetheless very satisfying autos. Most Audis come to mind.

    Case in point:

    My 1995 Alfa 164 Quadrifoglio. During the three years I owned it, there was an HVAC head unit ($1,600, warranty), a rear main seal (1,200, warranty), new coils for the coil-on-plug ignition (6 @ $60 per), new electronic shocks (4 @ $600 per), the the steering rack ($600), and the engine rebuild after the timing belt tensioner gave out qand it jumped timing, belnding all the valves ($6,800).

    Terrible reliability, but I LOVED that car, and still remember the tears I shed (some of joy, I have to admit), when it drove away with a new owner.

    I now drive a very reliable Acura that I have NO feelings for, either for or against. Very high quality, very low personality. But I’m a car geek.

    In the vehicle mass market that numbers in the millions, the only way to measure quality is through resale values. It’s a brutally efficient system that rewards reliability and punishes those who don’t deliver it. You can argue that the market is full of sheep who only want a car that never breaks(it is), but that misses the point. The market also says that MINI’s, with all their problems, deliver such a superior experience all around that the mechanical issues are not enough to kill resale values.

    The big 2.5 got into this mess with decades of neglect, both of the product and the customer. It’s going to take at least 10 years to turn it around. WHY? Because it will take that long for consumers to be able to observe the long-term reliability of their products and for that reliability to translate into higher demand, and consequently, higher prices.

    It ain’t rocket science.

    I loves me some free markets!

  • avatar

    I got hit again on the weekend and with my car in the shop, I am driving a rental Charger. Ironic that this thread about quality should be open at this time. Apart from the rather unhappy transmission, two things of note. First, I have travelled about 150 km, 2/3rds highway, and have used half a tank of gas. So either the gas gauge is broken or the car gets about 10mpg. And the trunk doesn’t close…at all. Midnight last night I was standing in my driveway slamming it over and over and waking up the neighbours. The agent warned me this might happen. At least I can tell you what quality is not.

  • avatar

    It’s interesting to see what people look for in a car. Reliability does seem to be important along with many other things. We asked people in Michigan to rate the importance of buying a car made in the U.S. and found that 80% said it was important. Another interesting finding was that 40% would consider buying exclusive Big Three automobile designs from Target or Meijer. You can check out more of the results at

  • avatar

    Yes high quality and high value are not the same. Unless of course you are looking for basic transportation at the lowest possible cost.

  • avatar

    “To clarify the BMW consumables…in Canada BMW sells a package called Service Inclusive that covers pads, rotors, belts, wiper blades for a 3 Series for 36 month / 60,000 klms its $795 for 48 month / 80,000 klms its $ 1,875.”

    More than double the price for an additional year? That tells me that after 60K klms, expect problems. Possibly major problems.

  • avatar

    jolo: they probably expect to do front disc and serpentine belt replacements in the fourth year.

    I’m sure if you reviewed the maintenance schedule you’d find several recommended items in the 60-80k window that would explain the cost.

  • avatar

    probably quality has nothing to do with customer satisfaction or expectations. because both are subjective, meaning, people that are less demanding or educated would consider the same cars more quality oriented products than they really are, while educated specialists would underrate these cars. thus- quality has to be a subjective point. to my mind ,quality is the precision of the execution of the planned functions of the car and the percentage of demands met. quality- fit and finish, texture and reliability. texture could also be subjective, but material durability makes it an objective point. quality is the percentage of promises met. [email protected] latvia

  • avatar

    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 Charger…it got better mileage. Unreal.

  • avatar

    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?

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • 285exp: He’s right that the filibuster is an excellent way to make sure nothing gets done, and that’s a feature, not...
  • mcs: “Call me when climate change is a real problem. Then we’ll talk.” Regardless of what’s causing...
  • Master Baiter: “Call me when you REALLY can’t buy a gas powered car. Then we’ll talk.” Call me when...
  • Land Ark: I guess this is a real concern for people whose broken down cars develop sunroof leaks while sitting...
  • thornmark: dementia joe never built anything other than a fortune off government influence Harry Truman: “any...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber