The best (and worst) brands in J.D. Power's 2021 Initial Quality Study
Ram and Dodge claim the top spots while Chrysler didn’t fare so well.
In a world infatuated with luxury brands, it’s the unassuming mass market automakers that have won favour with consumers, at least when it comes to initial vehicle quality.
Ram Truck and Dodge have climbed to the top of J.D. Power’s 2021 Initial Quality Study (IQS) rankings with the lowest number of problems reported by buyers during their first 90 days of ownership. Fewer problems equates with better quality and a higher ranking.
Last year Dodge tied for the top spot with Kia, becoming the first Detroit automaker to achieve a first-place ranking in the study’s history. According to the consumer research company, owners of non-premium vehicles have cited fewer problems, on average, than owners of luxury vehicles over the past six years.
While vehicle quality continues to improve incrementally – up by 2 per cent compared to last year – the bad news is vehicle infotainment systems remain the biggest source of disappointment for owners of 2021 models. One-quarter of all problems cited by new-car owners involve the infotainment system and the audio/video interface that fulfills the entertainment and communications needs of the vehicle’s occupants.
“This year there are many examples of smartphone technology not working as intended in new vehicles,” says Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive quality at J.D. Power. “With more vehicles being fitted with the wireless technology owners want, the study reveals an increase in connectivity problems between smartphones and vehicles, leaving many owners unhappy.”
Automakers like Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler) that were quick to redesign their systems to be intuitive and easier to operate won the hearts and wallets of buyers who crave simplicity, especially behind the wheel.
Ram placed first among 32 automotive brands and is the only truck-exclusive brand ever to claim top spot in J.D. Power’s initial quality study. Dodge ranked second with 139 problems per 100 vehicles, while Lexus and Mitsubishi tied for third, and Nissan rounded out the top five auto brands (see bar graph).
This year’s study duplicates some trends seen in 2020: several Detroit brands (Ram, Dodge, Jeep, Chevrolet, Buick and Ford) landed above the industry average, while most of the premium import automakers such as Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz amassed considerably more than the average 162 problems per 100 vehicles.
High-scoring individual models were also noted in the 2021 IQS. Hyundai Motor Group had the most vehicles top their segments with seven, including the Genesis G80, Hyundai Accent, and the Kia Forte, Sedona, Soul, Sportage and Telluride. Toyota/Lexus had five winning models, while BMW had four and Nissan had three.
Consumers are correct to take the IQS results with a grain of salt, since the survey tallies problems after just 90 days of ownership. The study may reveal more about design and software hiccups – such as fussy backup camera displays – than it does about product quality. For that, consumers should pay closer attention to J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), released every February.
VDS provides a more in-depth examination of the vehicle-owner relationship after three years, which typically documents more serious quality issues, such as oil-burning engines and hard-shifting transmissions. The dependability study sometimes shows a stark re-ordering of the top-ranked brands in the Initial Quality Study.
“The IQS surveys are not the best predictors of long term reliability and that is not what they measure, although there is a general correlation between trouble in the first 90 days and later on – and also the reverse, where a good start can point to good reliability later,” says George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (apa.ca) consumer group.
“We prefer J.D. Power’s longer-term ratings. We wish they would do a six- or seven-year survey so they could develop a picture of what happens after the warranty is over. But carmakers aren’t so interested because by then they’re not paying for repairs anymore.”
“The reports have consistently shown that initial quality improves after a vehicle has been in production for a few years,” adds Iny.
The J.D. Power Initial Quality Study looked at 2021 model-year vehicles purchased or leased between November 2020 and February 2021 by 110,800 survey respondents in the U.S. Here are the five best-rated brands in terms of initial quality in 2021; the five poorest-ranked brands follow below.
1 – Ram – 128 PP100
Stellantis bet the farm on its truck brand, a wager that’s paid off nicely as it plowed more money into redeveloping its pickups more frequently than its competitors. The popular Ram 1500 pickup, redesigned two year ago, has garnered numerous industry awards for its refinement and class-leading interiors. Well attuned to consumers on a budget, Ram continues to market the previous-generation 1500 Classic pickup alongside the new design. The Ram 2500/3500 won in the large heavy-duty pickup segment for initial quality. Ram also markets the ProMaster and ProMaster City commercial vans.
2 – Dodge – 139 PP100
It’s largely because Dodge continues to build three long-in-the-tooth models – Durango, Charger and Challenger – that the venerable nameplate has been ranked so highly in initial quality. Models that have been in production for several years without a redesign generally have the kinks worked out, as Iny notes. Canadians can take pride in the accomplishment, since the Challenger coupe and Charger sedan are assembled in Ontario. So is the old-school Grand Caravan minivan, which Canucks can continue to buy as a new 2020 model.
3 – Lexus – 144 PP100 (Tie)
Toyota’s premium brand typically shows up at or near the top of every quality ranking, although it missed out being among the top five last year due to some buyers’ dissatisfaction with its infotainment systems. Segment wins this year included the RC coupe in the compact premium car category, the UX in the small premium SUV class, and the ever-popular RX in the midsize premium SUV segment. Additionally, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada won the J.D. Power Plant Quality silver award for building the Lexus RX at its South Plant in Cambridge, Ontario – the fourth consecutive year it received the honour.
4 – Mitsubishi – 144 PP100 (Tie)
While being a relatively new automotive brand in Canada, Mitsubishi is familiar to consumers in markets all over the world, where it frequently rates highly in product quality. Its product line is small, consisting of the tiny Mirage hatchback and three crossover SUVs: the compact RVR, Outlander and Eclipse Cross. What Mitsubishi lacks in breadth it makes up for in up-to-the-minute technology, including plug-in hybrid powertrains. The RVR (marketed as the Outlander Sport in the U.S.) got an honourable mention in the IQS survey’s small SUV category.
5 – Nissan – 146 PP100
Nissan scored well in the 2021 IQS, but the Japanese automaker doesn’t always have lasting power. “The reliability of Nissan cars and SUVs is subpar after the warranty is over, yet initial quality is good,” says Iny. This model year is a critical one for the automaker as it renews its product line with a number of redesigned vehicles, including the Kicks subcompact crossover, the Rogue compact SUV and larger Pathfinder, along with the reintroduction of an all-new Versa subcompact sedan. In the individual IQS categories, Nissan earned three wins for its midsize Altima sedan, large Maxima sedan and Murano midsize SUV.
RANKING THE POOREST IQS BRANDS
Presented below are the five poorest-ranked nameplates in the 2021 Initial Quality Study. To help dissect the IQS information, we’ve looked at common complaints posted online to learn what owners are reporting in terms of significant faults.
28 – Alfa Romeo – 204 PP100
Reintroduced in North America by Fiat Chrysler in 2016, the Alfa Romeo Giulia sports sedan and closely related Stelvio luxury crossover SUV brought back soulful Italian motoring, along with its inherent Fix-it-again-Tony headaches. Owners have reported mysterious engine stalling and no-start conditions, fussy transmissions, malfunctioning headlights and sunroof mechanisms, infotainment glitches and noisy steering traced back to the electric power-steering gearbox. Components can sometimes take weeks to arrive from Italy, leaving unhappy owners cooling their heels. The high-performance Quadrifoglio models can be especially troublesome, owners warn.
29 – Volvo – 210 PP100
Volvo is nothing if not consistent, finishing with the identical PP100 score and ranking as last year. Volvo’s reputation for going the distance should not be confused with dependability, unfortunately. Owners have had to contend with electronic glitches, faulty instrument displays and non-operative door locks. The Sensus console is reportedly slow to respond to commands. Drive-E’s fuel-saving automatic engine stop-start system cannot be disabled permanently, a common bungle that generates problem scores that don’t actually reflect a reliability issue. It’s a frustration that has spoiled the quality scores of numerous manufacturers.
30 – Volkswagen – 213 PP100
Volkswagen has been on a sales tear as of late thanks to a pair of well-received SUVs, the redesigned Tiguan and the supersized Atlas. The automaker appears to have remedied the oil-burning issue exhibited in its 2.0-L turbocharged gasoline engine, but owners have been griping about infotainment system glitches and frustrating electrical faults, stuttering automatic transmissions and other driveability issues. Models equipped with sunroofs may see water leaks or problems with the power slider mechanism. Buyers migrating from a Japanese car to their first European model often need time to acclimatize to unfamiliar controls and ergonomics.
31 – Audi – 240 PP100
As Volkswagen’s aspirational brand, Audi has been winning market share with its appealing line of fashion-forward sports sedans and family-friendly SUVs. However, for better or for worse, a lot of components are drawn from VW’s parts bins. Audi owners are reporting drivetrain lapses, such as the rough-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission in the Q3 sport-ute. Safety system warning lamps can light up erroneously and Audi’s MMI interface controller is prone to locking up. Despite the low ranking, Audi received an honourable mention for its diminutive Q3 crossover in the small premium SUV category this year.
32 – Chrysler – 251 PP100
Chrysler’s position at the bottom of this year’s IQS rankings is a surprising outcome give that it’s so closely related to the top-ranked Dodge brand. With just two products – the aging 300 luxury sedan and the relatively new Pacifica/Grand Caravan minivan – it’s easy to find the culprit. The 300 actually performs well, since it shares its mechanicals with the Dodge Charger and Challenger. It’s the van that’s dragging down the nameplate. “Minivans in general have more problems than other vehicles, so when your score is predominantly based on a minivan you will struggle to perform well,” notes Dave Sargent. Owners report the van’s tendency to stall, along with a poor-performing transmission, blank infotainment screens, intermittent electric power steering, creaking panoramic sunroofs, and a fire risk in Hybrid models.