by Tony Whitney

Of course, car buyers saw many examples of this kind of marketing turnaround by Japanese vehicles over the years. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese cars may have offered value and performance, but rust and often tacky design were still factors to be reckoned with. Now, many models with Japanese nameplates – most of which are built in North America – are industry benchmarks.

2004 Hyundai Elantra
2004 Hyundai Elantra. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Now, it seems, we’re seeing a similar achievement by Korean automakers – if the latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS) rankings are anything to go by. For the first time in the history of these studies, Korean-made vehicles are outpacing both Domestic and European products in “initial quality.” A broad range of quality problems are logged by the IQS and the survey covers 51,000
purchasers and lessees, all polled after 90 days of ownership.

It doesn’t seem too long ago that Hyundai broke into North America via the Canadian auto market with its Pony model. This simple little car with nothing special to distinguish itself but price was a major success and large numbers were sold, prompting Hyundai to enter the U.S. market later on. Although the Pony didn’t exactly set new standards for reliability and rust protection, I still meet people who “swear by them” and look back on their ownership experience with something akin to nostalgia.

The Pony was followed by a variety of other vehicles, some quite decent, others less memorable. Model year by model year, quality and durability improved, though for many years, the resale value of used Hyundais was not exactly something to look forward to when trade-in time came around. There were setbacks for sure – typified by an assemmbly plant in Quebec that was eventually abandoned – but progress was steady and sure.

J.D Power’s rankings are highly regarded by the auto industry and manufacturers compete intensively to earn high scores. One could almost say that the analyst has made an important contribution to the quality of today’s cars, minivans, SUVs and pickups and the consumer has been the ultimate winner.

2003 Kia Sorento
2003 Kia Sorento. Photo: Kia. Click image to enlarge

According to J.D. Power, manufacturers of Korean-branded vehicles, mainly driven by a strong performance by Hyundai, have cut initial quality problems by 57 per cent over the past six years – dropping from 272 problems per 100 vehicles (272 PP100 in “PowerSpeak”) in 1998 to just 117 in 2004. Back in 1998, Korean makers generally lagged far behind Domestic, European and Japanese makes.

Incidentally, there are three Korean automakers active in Canada – Hyundai, Kia (which is part of Hyundai) and Daewoo. In this country, Daewoo products are marketed by General Motors and Suzuki and the name itself seems to have disappeared. Right now, the Korean makers lead the Europeans by 5 PP100 and the Domestics by 6 PP100. They still trail Japanese automakers by 6 PP100, but that margin is very slim indeed.

One of the most interesting factors for buyers of all kinds of vehicles is the point that quality is steadily improving across the board – at least, if J.D. Power’s research is taken into consideration. Initial quality problems have dropped 11 per cent since 2003 and the industry average represents the fewest problems since the study was redesigned back in 1998. Among 169 models included in both 2003 and 2004 IQS ratings, 76 per cent have registered an improvement while 21 per cent have declined and 3 per cent have remained unchanged. The highest ranking corporation in the most recent IQS poll is Toyota with seven models earning awards.

Honda tied for second with Hyundai, followed by BMW. The best-performing model in IQS history is the current Lexus LS430 with a rating of 44 PP100. Following up in the nameplate rankings are Cadillac, Jaguar and Honda. Other significant gainers for 2004 included Hummer, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz.

2004 Chevrolet Optra
2004 Chevrolet Optra. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

Interestingly, when J.D Power started tracking initial quality more than ten years ago, the auto industry said that it would cost too much to improve on the quality levels that prevailed at that time. Such is the competitive nature of the auto industry, manufacturers kept looking for ways to improve their vehicles and in most cases, made substantial progress. It’s worth mentioning that just because a vehicle doesn’t rate tops with J.D. Power it may not necessarily mean an owner won’t get many years of happy service from it. Often, the difference between a top rated vehicle and one further down the list is very marginal and the most important factor for most consumers is that just about all vehicles have hiked their quality and reliability levels over the past ten years or more.

To those of us who’ve been lucky enough to visit auto plants and research facilities in Korea over the years, the upward march of this country’s vehicle manufacturers is really no surprise. Korea has some of the most advanced plants and best-equipped research centres in the industry and its automakers are clearly capable of building just about anything they want at any price point. I would guess that these recent successes in the J.D. Power rankings will prompt Korean automakers to get even more ambitious with their product ranges.

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