Upheaval in the ranks: Malibu aces midsize car quality

Model-line quality data compiled by JD Power and Associates finds its way into the media only rarely because the California survey firm guards it to avoid embarrassing clients.

So when Power’s 2008 Initial Quality numbers for midsize cars leaked recently, they warranted some further scrutiny.  And parsing the numbers reveals some surprising developments

First, some background:  For years, Power has been measuring the quality of cars after 90 days of ownership by surveying their owners.  Everything counts the same: A malfunctioning ashtray is tabulated with the same weight as a seized engine. In the last couple of years, Power has been subdividing the complaints into design problems and defects/malfunctions but the totals remain comparable with previous years – and carries enormous bragging rights.

As long as I can remember, Japanese manufacturers have been regarded as the gold standard in quality.  No more.  This year’s IQS winner in the midsize segment, by a healthy margin, is the Chevrolet Malibu, with a mere 80 problems per 100 customers. That’s an excellent showing for a car in its first year of production, when assembly plants are still learning how to put the pieces together.

Other non-Asians also did well. The Ford Fusion finished third with 88 problems, the Volkswagen Passat ranked fourth with 94, and the Buick LaCrosse came in fifth with 96. Buick traditionally scores well in these surveys, but Ford and VW are both moving up the charts.

To be sure, two Japanese models, the Mitsubishi Galant and Toyota Camry also finished in the top five. But the Nissan Altima finished below average, as did, shockingly, the Honda Accord. Nissan is typically an also-ran in quality, but Honda has been a leader in the past. The 2008 Accord – another model in its first year of production – fell all the way from second in last year’s midsize survey with 22 more defects per 100.

Bringing up the rear in the midsize quality ranks was the Subaru Outback Wagon – another historical also-ran – and two Chrysler products: the Dodge Avenger and the mechanically identical Chrysler Sebring. They recorded 171 and 183 defects respectively, more than twice as many as the Malibu.

A couple of conclusions can be drawn from this data. One, it is possible for American mass-producers to equal or better the quality of their overseas competitors. And two, it still makes sense to avoid purchasing a car during its first year of production – even though that car may carry a famous Asian name on the trunk lid.

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