Ask Jack: Just Once, Can't We Figure Out What We Keep Doing Wrong?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
ask jack just once cant we figure out what we keep doing wrong

It’s time to refill the hopper on the questions that keep you awake at night. Send them to Help me help you. If you’ve sent me a question and you don’t yet have an answer, feel free to send it again or just remind me to look for your email. You would be amazed at the volume of correspondence I get every day, most of it from people who want to learn how to get press cars. Why would you ask me that? Ask a mommyblogger.

With that out of the way, let’s get to a question that, truthfully, should be asked a lot more often than it currently is being asked, both by customers and manufacturers.

John writes:

It would seem to me that with all the data available to an automaker (warranty claims, parts demand, etc.) any car company should be able to look at the failures, correct them, and go forward.

And yet, so many don’t. Do they just figure it’s cheaper to run junk, and fix what they have to, and not invest the time and money to fix problems?

Take Fiat for example. Really? Why? It’s a cute car. People will buy it. Why make them suffer?

What about VW? When they first came to the US, it was about value, including reliability. They want to be Toyota, and yet they miss the point of how important reliability is to a mass market car-as-appliance buyer. I’ll have another Camry, they all say. How can they not see this?

This eminently sensible question deserves an answer. In this case, I have several answers, listed below.

  • Virtually all mass-market cars are exceptionally reliable nowadays. You often hear people ask, “Why can’t cars be as reliable as a W123 Benz?” As fate would have it, my best friend went to work in the parts department of a Benz dealer in 1988 and I very well recall all the afternoons we sat around in the shop laughing about how crappy the W123 cars were. In fact, pretty much all of the famously reliable old Benzes would subject their owners to one or two unscheduled service visits a year, starting on Day One. To put it in perspective, my 2009 Lincoln Town Car made it through 113,000 miles with just two unplanned stops. One was for a door lock and another was for HVAC noise. My wife’s ’09 Chevrolet Tahoe is at 117,000 miles without a single unscheduled stop. Never in my life did I ever hear of a W126 Benz doing something like that. You might think a modern Fiat is junk because it goes to the dealer once or twice a year. In 1985, even a Honda Accord could barely pull off that trick.
  • Everybody builds to a price now, and they do it by grinding their suppliers into the dust. Many years ago, there was a sort of three-way romance between Volkswagen, GM, and a fellow named J. Ignacio Lopez. Senor Lopez was a wizard at shifting costs, and problems, to subcontractors. He made a lot of money for a lot of people — and then the bill came due in terms of low product quality and system failures. If you’ve driven a Mk4 Golf or Jetta, you’ve seen the Lopez philosophy at work. Unfortunately, that philosophy has now become standard practice across the industry, driven by customers who expect to get more car for less money. Go look at the standard-equipment lists on the Toyota Camry throughout the years, then look at the inflation-adjusted price. To keep up that Moore’s-Law-style march of progress, something has to give somewhere. Like cutting the cost of a supplier-provided accelerator pedal … just to, ah, make up an example.
  • And some automakers have secret costs they address by cutting corners further. Union labor, pension plans, unfunded liabilities. All of these cut into the bottom line and have to be balanced out. But it’s not just labor-related expenses. Look at Porsche; they made a ton of money and used it to engage in reckless fiscal adventurism that ended up in their utter subjugation to the state-supported Volkswagen juggernaut. They could have used all of that profit to address the problems of the M96 engine, but they decided it would be more glamorous to engage in jumped-up day trading.
  • The pace of change results in a lot of stuff going out the door half-finished It’s expensive to be at the so-called “bleeding edge,” both in terms of money and reliability problems. Look at Ford: they brought all sorts of exotic tech to the masses, then they had to suffer through terrible customer-relations issues with SYNC, the PowerShift transmission, and the EcoBoost truck engines. There’s a reason that some companies, like Honda, are inherently conservative. The problem happens when your competitor bets the farm and gets it right — like Ford did with the aluminum F-150, and like Jeep did with the unibody Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. Then you end up licensing a couple of crappy SUVs from Isuzu just to keep the dealers from kicking your representatives into the Sparta pit.
  • Never forget that automakers generally consider you, the consumer, to be an utter fool. Did you ever wonder why automakers have public-relations departments? It’s not because they truly enjoy paying for people with associates’ degrees to take $50,000 trips just because said degree-holders happen to work for Motor Trend. It’s because the average auto-manufacturer engineer thinks the customer is basically a brain-damaged bonobo in a human-flesh suit. The amount of contempt most engineers have for average people is utterly astonishing. I’m not saying they’re wrong to feel that way. Imagine you’ve spent three years of your life engineering a single facet of a new automobile to a precise balance between cost, durability, function, and appearance, only to have some trustafarian liberal-arts moron ding you on a J.D. Power survey because she is literally unable to understand any touchscreen menu with more than two levels. Now imagine you have to sort through thousands of complaints like that just to find the one legitimate gripe with your product. That’s the life of an automotive engineer.

Those are some of the reasons for quality problems at automakers, but you can simplify all the above to a single statement: A modern automobile is a miracle. It is a more complex system than any human creation before, say, the SR-71 Blackbird. It lasts 20 years or 200,000 miles with almost no maintenance, it will protect you if you drive head-first into wall at 45 mph and it will actively intervene to prevent that incident before it happens. It can drive itself to some degree and it can regulate the interior temperature to within two degrees in Fairbanks or Death Valley. And you can lease it for a sum of money that wouldn’t get you one hour of a corporate attorney’s time or two days’ worth of barista service in Seattle. If you seriously think about it for more than moment or two, your mind will start to twist with amazed gratitude.

Unfortunately for all of us, gratitude is the most fleeting of human emotions. So how about that piece of crap Accord I’m driving? Did I mention that the floormats wore out?

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4 of 132 comments
  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on May 26, 2017

    For me, it's the perception of quality that isn't there! How much more per car would it REALLY cost Honda to have an interior with the same quality as, say, even the 4th-Gen Accord (1994-1997), much less the one before, 1990-1993? The carpet was reasonable, the mats showed signs of wear by warranty expiration and not after one week of ownership, the plastics had a nice feel, and the seats wore like iron. (Rattles??!! Bwahahahaha!) My 2013 is nice, but the felt where carpet should be, along with materials that scratch if you look at them the wrong way, is just dumb! (And Acura isn't much better!) What is it to get a better interior? $40/car? 'K, then: do it, and raise the cost of the car $100! That profit would go well towards helping to offset the cost of the bribe..VACATIONS given to the auto scribes and their families in order for them to sing the praises of your latest family truckster, given the volume!

    • Sgeffe Sgeffe on May 27, 2017

      Gaah..that 1990 Accord was 4th-Gen, the 1994-1997 (which gained the V6 via a nose extension (from the Legend) was 5th! (Sadly, Honda will likely leave me if they drop that torque-monster (which got rubber in the first three gears today) for a squirrel-wheeled shitster this fall!)

  • Hgrunt Hgrunt on May 27, 2017

    "A modern automobile is a miracle." - This is how I feel every time I drive a modern car. Being a bit of a geek, I'm often in awe of how any auto manufacturer is able to build the same reliable car, in a dozen locations around the world, to exacting qualities, needs and standards, with unwavering consistency. Regarding cost of parts, I think it's certainly fallen over time. I saw some service receipts from 1988, and noticed how much the parts cost vs today. Numerically they were the same, $14 PS belt for example, but adjusted for inflation to 2017, it's $30. That same belt can be purchased for $15 in 2017.

    • JimZ JimZ on May 27, 2017

      "Today's cars are the most complex, sophisticated machines ever to be placed in the hands of inexpert operators." -Richard Parry-Jones

  • Keith Maybe my market's different. but 4.5k whack. Plus mods like his are just donations for the next owner. I'd consider driving it as a fun but practical yet disposable work/airport car if it was priced right. Some VAG's (yep, even Audis) are capable, long lasting reliable cars despite what the haters preach. I can't lie I've done the same as this guy: I had a decently clean 4 Runner V8 with about the same miles- I put it up for sale around the same price as the lower mile examples. I heard crickets chirp until I dropped the price. Folks just don't want NYC cab miles.
  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.