Unraveling The Mystery Of Consumer Reports' Brand Spread
Some things have been repeated so often that many people have come to accept them as facts. I tripped across one of these in Bob Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters (review on the way). Lutz offers “a curiosity I have observed several times at various stages of my career”: when the domestics rebadge an import, the resulting model has scored “way lower” in Consumer Reports reliability survey. This has been Exhibit A in the argument, also repeated by Lutz, that import owners under-report problems on surveys in order to “retroactively justify the wisdom of their purchase.” I’ve come across this claim about CR so many times in the past that it just had to be true. Then I checked.
The cars Lutz mentions: Eclipse / Laser, Corolla / Prizm, and Matrix / Vibe. I happen to have some Consumer Reports annual auto issues from the years in question. In the 1992 issue, the Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon sometimes scored lower than the Mitsubishi Eclipse, and sometimes scored higher, depending on the model year and powertrain. The differences are mixed and never substantial. CR pooled the samples for the Diamond Star hatches beginning with the 1993 issue, so the scores for the triplets were absolutely identical from that point on.
Also in the 1992 issue, the Prizm scored lower than the Toyota Corolla, but just by a little, not “way lower” as Lutz states. In the 1995 and 1996 issues the Prizm actually scored higher than the Corolla, with the margin in the former year a substantial ten points.
With the Vibe and Matrix, Lutz gets his snark on. “Have you been paying attention? Test question: which of the ‘twins’ performed better in quality surveys?” Well, in the 2005 issue the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix had virtually the same scores, with both better than average. In the 2009 issue the Matrix scored a little higher than the Vibe, but in the 2007 and 2008 issues the reverse was true. In fact, in the 2008 issue the Vibe had the highest score in the entire “wagons and hatchbacks” category. It seems that Lutz either wasn’t paying attention or saw the unfair playing field he wanted to see, didn’t check the facts either way (always a good idea), and consequently failed his own test.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.
Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.
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