Editorial: The Truth About Car Awards

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

In the wake of JD Powers’ Initial Quality Survey, several other lesser-known awards are giving OEMs a whole new reason to cobble together a press release touting their top place, improvement or mere presence in one of these meaningless satisfaction surveys. And why not? It’s summer, and things (sales, in specific) are slow. And the award fandango is win-win. The awards allow OEMs to ridiculously inflate the importance of their results, while publicizing the research firms that created the awards. Case in point, the Dodge Ram.

The Ram got top full-size truck honors in the “ Strategic Vision Total Quality Index,” a result that prompted the Chrysler Blog headline “Ram Ranked as Best Truck Ever (No Exaggeration).” Except that the survey (like so many meaningless surveys) only gathers impressions of quality and satisfaction from owners of 2008/2009 models, providing a less-than complete picture of “total quality.” In other words, yes exaggeration. But by embracing subjectivity and endless categorization, the awards dance keeps shuffling along.

“We know Total Quality is strengthened by delighting customers and getting them to love you. We stand ready to include love in all the work that we do since measuring love is the next step in discriminating between winning and losing in today’s competitive environment,” explains Strategic Vision’s Darrel Edwards.

But how do you measure such an ineffable emotion with any reliability? As the Bard put it, “love is not love which alters when it alteration [Ed: or awkward panel gap] finds, Or Bends with the remover to remove. O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark.” In short, who doesn’t love their new car? Finding out whether a car lives up to its owner’s expectations is more a measure of the owners than the car.

“Vehicles that score highest in the Vehicle Satisfaction Awards hit the mark with their buyers by delivering value and satisfaction across a wide range of attributes,” says George Peterson, of Auto Pacific, and grand pimp of the 2009 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards. “The winners perform well in 48 separate categories that objectively measure the ownership experience.”

Leaving the challenge of “objectively measuring satisfaction” aside for a moment, that’s 48 freaking categories! Which means every OEM is guaranteed to have at least one “class-leading” vehicle to brag about in press release which backhandedly legitimizes the award. Which is the whole point.

Not that such circle-jerkery is necessarily an inherently bad thing. People often buy cars for irrational reasons, a fact that has gone a long way towards making the auto industry what it is today. If consumers want to factor an aggregation of opinion and after-the-fact purchase justification into their decisions, so be it. But it’s not like either partner in the awards fandango acknowledges that the data in question is scarcely an improvement on a single random opinion of a given car.

“In a year that promises to be the toughest in more than a decade, car buyers are being especially prudent, and the data we’ve analyzed for the Vehicle Satisfaction Award will help this year’s customers make wise purchase decisions,” says Peterson of his award. “We’ve found that more than 25% of respondents are positively influenced by awards like the VSA when deciding on a car and this trend will certainly continue given the economy.”

But wise purchase decisions have nothing to do with it. These awards are little more than marketing information, to be overemphasized by marketing departments. To the consumer, a test drive will tell you more about your likely satisfaction with a given vehicle than any survey can (incidentally,whatever happened to the 24 hour test drive?). Meanwhile, despite slow sales across the industry, every OEM has at least one “winner.” And therein lies the real problem.

The proliferation of meaningless awards contributes to what is already one of the banes of the auto industry: attention span drain. Just as most consumers would be hard pressed to match every automotive brand with its OEM, the public is so inundated with quality survey awards that it’s impossible to expect consumers to seperate the wheat from the chaff. And the wild divergence in results only adds to the confusion.

Jaguar/Land Rover and Volkswagen, for example, may rank towards the bottom in more objective long-term quality and reliability testing, but a press release based on the opinions of buyers who have yet to experience engine sludging or electrical issues conveniently allows them to tout their quality and out-publicize their negative results.

Meanwhile, the awards keep on coming. There are infinite paths to an ill-advised vehicle purchase, but awards purporting to measure intangible attributes using questionable methodologies continue to be the best publicized of the bunch. Deluding consumers and OEMs alike may be good for business, but not in any meaningful or sustainable way.

Consumers, in particular, would be well served to ditch the annual awards and focus instead on methodical, long-term reliability studies such as Consumer Reports or True Delta. If emotional reactions to a vehicle are (for some reason) important to your buying decision, even online forums offer a broader range of reactions and dialogue than an awards aggregate. The truth is out there, but only if you look past the press releases touting useless awards.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Argentla Argentla on Jul 03, 2009

    Years ago, British auto magazines would list very detailed breakdowns of each new car's maintenance schedule (including the labor hours in each) and the cost of common repairs and commonly replaced parts (ranging from a new clutch to brake pads to new headlamps). They eventually also included projected depreciation. This was far less catchy than J.D. Power, but a lot more useful.

  • John Holt John Holt on Jul 06, 2009

    I should clarify my "statistically dubious" remark. I understand 20K should be a significant sample size, but if you assume 200 (guessing) or more nameplates available to consumers, it averages to 100 respondents per nameplate, give or take a significant chunk based on the vast differences in sales volume. Further add to it complexity of judging such soft figures as "customer satisfaction" based not on objective data but on feel-good fuzzy feelings combined with regional differences in vehicle preference (a Floridian might chastize a Subaru for poor fuel economy because of the AWD where a Snow-belter would swear by the car), and you have a mess of incongruence with the data. Sites like TrueDelta at least allow the consumer to pick through and analyze the hard data in front of them to make informed decisions; even if the data may not (in some cases) statistically significant, at least it is factual and open.

  • 28-Cars-Later I see velour and pleather seats are back in style.
  • 28-Cars-Later Please come buy one of the two things we sell which don't suck.
  • 28-Cars-Later Ahahahahaha.
  • Carrera I live in Florida and owned summer tires once before on a Corolla. Yes I know, it's a Corolla but it drove much better ( to me) with those on. I would have bought them again but replacement time came during the beginning of the " transitory inflation" and by then, I found all seasons that were much cheaper. Currently I own a slightly more performance oriented Acura TLX -AWD and when the OEM all season Michelin wear out, I will replace them with summer Michelins. Often times, a car comes alive with summer tires but I understand why people don't buy them above South Carolina. I lived in Canada for 5 years and just thinking about swapping twice per year made me anxious.
  • Steve Biro I don’t bother with dedicated summer or winter tires. I have no place to store them. But the newest all-weather tires (with the three-peak mountain symbol) are remarkably good year-round. The best of them offer 90 percent of the performance of winter tires and still fall mid-pack among summer ultra-high performance tires. That’s more than enough for my location in New Jersey.
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