Car industry’s secret scrutiny
YOU could be forgiven for thinking that dirty little secrets - and dirty big ones - are accepted practice in the car industry, because recent examples of a culture of cover-up and its potentially tragic consequences are very easy to find.
WHERE SHALL WE START?
How about Dieselgate, VW's emissions cheating software scandal that led to last month's arrest of Audi boss Rupert Stadler.
Then there's the General Motors faulty ignition switch disaster in the US. In 2015 GM was fined $US900 million for failing to report the problem - the switch turned itself off while the car was being driven - for 10 years after it became known. The faulty switch caused crashes that took more that 120 lives.
The Takata saga is still being played out around the world, 17 years and 23 deaths (including one in Australia) after drivers in the US began complaining to regulators about faulty airbags.
In April, Ford Australia was fined $10 million by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for "unconscionable conduct" in its treatment of about 2000 customers who bought a Fiesta, Focus or Ecosport fitted with the troublesome dual-clutch Powershift transmission.
"Ford knew that its vehicles had three separate quality issues," the consumer watchdog said. "Despite knowing that shuddering was a symptom of the quality issues … Ford frequently told customers that shuddering was a result of the customer's driving style."
Under the Australian Consumer Law, you may be entitled to a refund or replacement vehicle (your choice) if your new car has a "major failure". This includes a problem that, had you known about it before you bought the car, would have crossed it off your list.
It also includes a car that is "substantially unfit for (its) normal purpose". That is, a lemon.
You can have all the legal rights in the world but enforcing them is always going to be difficult, time-consuming and, even if you win, probably expensive.
An obvious and easy way to minimise the risk of being saddled with the car from hell would be if you could get accurate information about which cars, and brands, deliver the best quality, reliability and durability - and, just as importantly, which ones don't.
THIS INFORMATION EXISTS
Australia's car companies collect it from new car buyers - but they're not about to share the results with their customers.
The Automotive Research Committee, with more than 30 car brands as members, commissions research to find out how customers are getting along with their new car, from initial purchase through the first three years of ownership.
It asks owners about problems and faults with the car itself, plus their opinion of the dealer's customer service and the overall feel-good factor, or otherwise, of their experience.
Brands are ranked best to worst and the results shared among committee members - but not with the public who buy new cars.
ARC members sign a confidentiality agreement, gaining access to the results on the condition they keep them secret. The only way you'll ever get to know is if all members agree to publication. As an industry source told us: "That's not going to happen."
We asked committee chairman Justin Orr of Mercedes-Benz why the results are not made available to consumers. His reply: "The survey is not designed to be a public scorecard or a competitive comparison."
We also asked Holden, Ford, Toyota, Kia, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Volkswagen whether they favoured keeping the confidentiality agreement, or were open to the ARC survey results being made public.
Only VW and Hyundai were prepared to share the results with car buyers.
"I'd be happy to share the data, as long as everyone else does. We've got nothing to hide," says Hyundai's Scott Grant.
"More openness and more disclosure not only reflect public expectations now and into the future but (also are) a sign of a more modern and mature industry."
Jason Bradshaw from VW says: "Volkswagen Australia is the only brand that publishes on its website the performance of each dealer based on the direct feedback of 80,000 customers annually. So we're happy to have our quality data published, providing that other brands do likewise so that there is a basis for comparison."
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
In the US, research firm JD Power has been surveying new car owners about quality and reliability issues for 29 years. Its Initial Quality Study looks at the first 90 days of ownership; the Vehicle Dependability Study examines the first three years.
Brands are ranked from best to worst, and specific models are ranked in their classes. Results are expressed as problems per 100 vehicles (PP100).
JD Power is not the firm that does the ARC survey. The same brands that keep ARC results secret in Australia co-operate in the US with JD Power and accept the public's right to know the results.
"If you're not held publicly accountable, there is no incentive to fix something," says JD Power's David Amodeo.
"Accountability and transparency absolutely produce better outcomes for consumers, with safer and more reliable cars."
The 2018 initial quality study results were stunning. The top three brands were South Korean. Genesis - Hyundai's new luxury brand launching here later this year - took first place, followed by Kia and Hyundai itself.
"It's the result of relentless hard work, focus and dedication by the Koreans," Amodeo says.
We can't confirm the same outcome in the ARC survey. JD Power results are, for the time being, as accurate a guide to the relative performance of brands as we are going to get, as Orr acknowledges.
"JD Power is well-respected internationally and their data is probably pretty good," he says.
Showing greater frankness, our industry source says: "The Koreans aren't coming - they're here. Buyers are opportunistic now and this is the age of the customer, so most brands are trying very hard to improve quality, reliability and customer service.
"The Australian car industry can either hide from the conversation or take control of it."
IT'S AN OPEN BOOK IN THE US
The JD Power 2018 Initial Quality Study covered 75,000 new car buyers and 31 brands. Porsche's 911 achieved the best individual score, at 48 problems per 100 cars (PP100).
Infotainment (audio, navigation and communication) causes the most problems but driver safety assistance has been the fastest growing category as makers increasingly fit autonomous emergency braking, lane keeping etc. "Mainstream Japanese makers are having growing pains as they roll out new infotainment and driver assist technology," says JD Power's David Amodeo.
The 2018 Vehicle Dependability Study covered nearly 37,000 owners of model year 2015 vehicles. Overall dependability improved by 9 per cent over 2017, the first time the industry score has improved since 2013. Lexus ranked best overall for the seventh successive year.
The two most common problems reported by owners were with voice control recognition and Bluetooth connectivity. Price and quality are not necessarily related.
Mass market vehicles, which averaged 143 PP100, are closing the gap with luxury vehicles, which averaged 136.