Car survey see low tolerance for high-tech flaws

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Car survey see low tolerance for high-tech flaws

Car buyers increasingly want high-tech features like voice recognition and navigation. But they’re not very forgiving when those systems fail.

The top complaints in J.D. Power’s closely watched survey of new vehicle owners, released Wednesday, involved technologies that drivers are clamoring for. Voice recognition systems either didn’t recognize commands or didn’t work at all. Bluetooth systems had trouble connecting with drivers’ phones.

The result: just when automakers had reached their highest-ever levels of quality - as they did in J.D. Power’s 2012 survey - technology glitches are dragging their scores down.

“I’ve had companies tell me they would rather develop a new car from the ground up than a new entertainment system,” said Tom Mutchler, program manager of vehicle interface at Consumer Reports.

This year’s survey questioned 83,442 owners and lessees of 2013 model vehicles in their first 90 days of ownership. They were contacted at random through state registration data.

Porsche, GMC, Lexus, Infiniti and Chevrolet topped the rankings, with owners reporting fewer than 100 problems per 100 vehicles. The worst-performing brands were Scion, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Mini. Their owners reported 135 problems or more.

The industry average was 113 problems per vehicle. Quality is now so good, industry-wide, that the difference between the highest-ranking and lowest-ranking brands in J.D. Power’s survey amounts to just two problems per vehicle.

Brands that bore the brunt of owner dissatisfaction often had the newest gadgetry. Cadillac’s new ATS sedan is equipped with the CUE touch screen infotainment system, which has been panned by critics who say it doesn’t always respond to touch. Cadillac fell 10 places in the rankings. Nissan, which dropped 17 spots, was hurt by problems with features in its new Altima. Car owners have complained in online forums that the Altima’s voice recognition system doesn’t always understand them and the car’s Bluetooth system has trouble connecting to their phones.

J.D. Power, which has been conducting the survey since 1987, said the top complaints used to concern mechanical defects, such as engine noise, that could be readily fixed at a dealership. Now, owners complain about design or technology flaws that aren’t easy for a dealer to remedy. For example, wind noise - the third most common complaint this year - is related to the vehicle’s design, not its mechanical parts.

“Automakers are investing billions of dollars into designing and building vehicles and adding technologies that consumers desire and demand. But the risk is that the vehicle design, or the technology within the vehicle, in some cases may not meet customer needs,” said David Sargent, vice president of J.D. Power’s global automotive business.

Sargent said automakers could mitigate the problems by teaching owners more about their high-tech features or by providing more frequent software updates.

Aaron Bragman, the Detroit bureau chief for the car-buying site, said automakers are held to a different standard than smartphone makers.

“With your phone, that’s a $200 piece of electronics, so you don’t expect it to have the same kind of reliability. But the car is the second most expensive piece of equipment that most people ever purchase, after their house,” he said.

Car companies have little choice but to keep giving consumers the high-tech features they expect, said Consumer Reports Mutchler. He thinks the issues will get sorted out in the end, possibly with the intervention of tech companies like Apple.


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