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The toastmasters from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light...

The following is from the November 8th edition of The Car Connection:

HYUNDAI, VOLVO BOOSTED BY CONSUMER REPORTS
Consumer Reports gave the reps of Hyundai, Chevrolet, GMC and Volvo a goose by adding some of the companies' models to its recommended list in its latest reliability survey - while simultaneously downgrading many top-selling Japanese and European models.

In its latest issue, CR now recommends the Hyundai Sonata and Santa Fe; Chevy Avalanche, Silverado, Tahoe and Suburban; GMC Sierra; and the Volvo S60, V70 and Cross Country. Though CR downgraded the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Subaru Impreza to "average reliability," the three still remain on the recommended list. The magazine noted that the Japanese models, all of which went through recent design changes, lost ground for uncharacteristic squeaks and rattles.

European makes did not score well in the new report. Only the Saab 9-5 scored "above average reliability" while no Mercedes-Benz models made the recommended list. Only the BMW 5 Series scored high enough to be recommended. The Volkswagen Golf and Jetta lost their recommended status as their scores fell, while the redesigned Audi A4 scored "well below average."

Consumer Reports' rankings are based on almost 480,000 responses to questionnaires provided by CR subscribers. Respondents answer based on their experience with their vehicles over the previous 12 months. While the magazine has much more competition that it used to from online auto buying and shopping sources, such as Edmunds.com and Autotrader.com, it is still seen as the single most influential source for consumers making a new or used car purchase. -Jim Burt



Yannis
 

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Re: The toastmaster from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light... (GrecianVolvo)

DRIVING FORCES

Is Consumer Reports Biased?

Sometimes it's not the cards you're dealt - it's how they're stacked.
by Mike Davis 3/18/2002

For the umpteenth time, I expectantly opened up the Annual Auto Issue of Consumer Reports the other day. My true confession is that I've been reading the rag since I was a newly minted driver right after WWII.

Before car magazines like Motor Trend and Road & Track were invented, Consumer Reports was one of the few car-report magazines available and, like 2002's teens now, I lapped up anything I could find then.

Even today, I find CR's April car catalogue a reliable source of information as to which of the myriad of today's models are truly "new," as well as for some of their key statistics and identifying photos.

At the National Automotive History Collection in the Detroit Public Library, we relied on CR's spring car guide to draw up a list of "future collector cars" for a poll we conducted among supporters each fall ­- a poll I hope to have re-instituted this year.

Nevertheless, since I began writing about cars more than four decades ago, I came to learn that CR, despite its stock-in-trade of pretended objectivity, is subject - perhaps unknowingly - to distortions in two of its key features, new car ratings and reports of "reliability" which are used as fodder for both new and used-car ratings.

Geographic anomalies

Part of this, I believe, has to do with geography. The Auto Test Unit for Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine for its members and newsstand sales, is located along the Connecticut coast near New Haven. Even on the Interstates around there, it's hard to travel over 50 or 55 much of the time, because of congestion and the rocky, hilly countryside. The other roads are largely winding country lanes, much like those in England. It happens that I racked up a lot of miles driving around Connecticut in my college days and still drive back for reunions, so I know whereof I speak.

One consequence is that CU's auto testers naturally gravitate to Euro-type cars rather than Detroit's boulevard, Interstate and plains buggies. I also think there's a cultural bias ­- the East Coast versus the great unwashed masses of the interior. As it happens, a lot of California drivers also face windy narrow roads, so CU's judgment in this regard carries a bi-coastal appeal.

As it got richer, CU built its own vehicle test facility including a skidpad. Manufacturers found it was very hard to duplicate the handling results CR reported, because of the unique characteristics of the pad.

Another flaw in CR's new car ratings, not to mention other CU product reviews, is that they are based on single-sample tests. Given a choice, no self-respecting engineer would rely on just one sample of any product to generate a drop-dead rating, but here CU pleads poverty. Further, CU compounds this weakness by relying on single-sample staged crash tests of the Federal government and an insurance company lobbying organization. The fact is, although uniformity has improved tremendously in the overall quality quest, there still are variations between otherwise seemingly identical products, especially cars. And minute differences in crash tests can generate surprisingly disparate results.

Also, for many years, the head of CU's auto test unit was a talented former Chrysler development engineer. And naturally he preferred certain Chrysler-like features, such as the power-steering feedback. I doubt he realized his prejudice. You might say, So What, but the catch was that CU and other East Coast elitists were advocates of all cars being alike in such attributes as handling, instrument cluster design, etc. -attributes which car nuts think give different makes their distinctive characters.

But these are mostly subjective matters, in which my opinion is worth just about how much you paid to access this web page.

Reliability questions

The subject of reliability reports is a different matter. These are based on huge databases that humble most market researchers. CU says in the latest issue that its most recent survey recorded "readers' experiences with 512,000 vehicles."

The report covers some 204 different car and light truck models, going back for as many as eight model years. If you do the math, you can see the data for any given model might be pretty thin; indeed, CU throws out some model-year reports for insufficient data, but doesn't tell us what the thresholds or sample sizes were. Without explanation, it also omits some rather well-known models altogether: for example, this year the Infiniti Q45 has been tossed.

The "reliability report" information therefore is overwhelming ­- and can be misleading. It is flawed in two ways. First, it depends on owner reports that are not objectively reliable, and from a sample that, despite its overall size, may not be geographically or demographically balanced and further may understate reality. If people like a car, or believe it is supposed to be great despite their own experience, they simply may not report a problem and therefore it doesn't pop up on CU's radar screen. The issue is actual repairs versus reported repairs.

For example, our household ownership experience suggested that one otherwise dandy Toyota model was subject to repeated exhaust system failures (at $500 a crack) as well as rusty rear quarter wheel housing lips. Toyota in fact put out-of-warranty programs in place for these problems to keep customers happy, a wise generosity rarely displayed by Detroit companies. For whatever reason, these flaws didn't seem to generate black marks in the car's CR report.

The other reason these so-called reliability reports are questionable is they may overstate possible failures - quality or regulatory - that have been subject to manufacturers' free fix-it programs. If this seems to contradict the kind of love-bug underreporting noted above, that's just the way it comes out.

For example, a few months after Ford Motor Company introduced its all-new mid-size Ford Torino and Mercury Montego models for 1972, it began hearing about rear-wheel bearing failures, including a handful of fearful wheel separations. The company moved quickly to recall all the affected cars. The numbers went something like this: about 20 cases of wheel separation and 100 reports of noisy bearing failures short of separation, out of a population of 400,000 cars. (The failure cause, as I recall, was traced to "green die-sets" in early production that hadn't shown up on test cars with pre-production parts.)

Yet, ever after as long as CU reported annually on those '72 models, they were condemned for having faulty axles. Hardly any customers had experienced such a fate but, in conducting the recall, Ford had informed them there was a problem that had to be corrected, so owners who were CR readers duly reported a problem.

Echoes of past problems

This sort of thing still shows up, based on experience with my eight-year-old Lincoln Continental and how it gets zinged in the 2002 CR rating, which is not very favorable. Yet the car has been exceptionally satisfying to own, including very low operating expense and rare need to visit the dealership. Nevertheless, over the years Ford has had to make a couple of major repairs under warranty (like the puzzling 3.8-liter head-gasket failure) which cost me nothing yet show up as a warning the vehicle is unreliable.

If it's been fixed, there are no grounds for rating it as a potential problem. You could argue that it WAS unreliable because it needed fixing ­- but I say once fixed, especially on the manufacturer's initiative, it is misleading to rate it as continuing to be unreliable. I think CU should temper its questionnaires to eliminate reports of problems fixed under recall or manufacturer service adjustments.

On the other hand, at 80,000 miles I recently had to cough up $866 to replace rear air shocks, an aging failure mode showing up on the CR report but for which Ford professes ignorance of a problem.

I wonder if TCC readers who also check the CR Auto Issue have noted similar out-of-whack discrepancies between their own experiences and the reliability ratings.

As long as I'm nit-picking Consumer Reports, I also question their product groupings, which long have classified cars within widely ranging prices and sizes as competitors. And, oddly for a self-appointed consumer magazine, in making these groupings it rarely acknowledges value comparisons, Detroit's traditional strong point.

This year CR categorizes the Toyota Avalon in the same "large sedan" class as Buick Park Avenue, Chrysler Concorde and Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis ­- despite big disparities in size and price. In terms of value, Grand Marquis for example is 20 inches longer than Avalon and six inches wider, with 30 percent more luggage space, while list-priced roughly $2000 less.

The bottom line? CR is not bulletproof, and its editors should be more candid about its shortcomings. If you're going to pretend to be above the commercial fray, complete disclosure is required.

Copyright © 2002 by the Car Connection TM. All Rights Reserved.
The Car Connection is a Trademark of DA Acquisitions, Inc.
 

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Re: The toastmaster from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light... (GrecianVolvo)

This reminds me... I was going to ask...

C/R lists the V70 and XC70 on the same line in their reliability charts, at least on their website. I thought the V70 was very similar to the S60, while the XC70 was based on the S80. Was I presuming incorrectly? If I'm right, then their reliability data is inaccurate, since they list the V70/XC70 as lower in reliability than an S60.

Something I've been wondering about... http://********************/smile/emsmile.gif
 

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Re: The toastmaster from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light... (javadoc)

Scott,

The S60, V70, XC70, and S80 are all based on the same platform, but the XC70 and V70 are very tightly related. The relationship isn't as close with the XC70 and S80.

-Drew
 

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Re: The toastmaster from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light... (GrecianVolvo)

I'm an engineer for the "toaster testers", testing automotive aftermarket and maintenance products as well as other items.

Yannis, your distain for CR is well documented, both here and in other forums (according to my 850 owning collegue.) But given your often reasonable advice to others on this forum, I would think you would have given a bit more consideration to what you post in support of your views:

quote:

The Auto Test Unit for Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine for its members and newsstand sales, is located along the Connecticut coast near New Haven. Even on the Interstates around there, it's hard to travel over 50 or 55 much of the time, because of congestion and the rocky, hilly countryside. The other roads are largely winding country lanes, much like those in England. It happens that I racked up a lot of miles driving around Connecticut in my college days and still drive back for reunions, so I know whereof I speak.
I don't know where Mr. Davis is driving, but the defacto speed limit on the Merritt Parkway is 70-75. I-84 is one of the most wide-open roads I've ever driven on in the East, with a cruising speed of 75 easy. (I have a ticket to prove it.)

quote:

As it got richer, CU built its own vehicle test facility including a skidpad. Manufacturers found it was very hard to duplicate the handling results CR reported, because of the unique characteristics of the pad.
Interesting. While we own a skidpad at our test facility - staffed by engineers who have nothing to do with testing toasters (although that crack sounds cute Yannis) - we don't publish the numbers recorded.

quote:

Also, for many years, the head of CU's auto test unit was a talented former Chrysler development engineer. And naturally he preferred certain Chrysler-like features, such as the power-steering feedback.
And Bob Knoll has been gone for almost eight years, during which time test criteria has been updated to keep pace with automotive innovation.

quote:

For example, a few months after Ford Motor Company introduced its all-new mid-size Ford Torino and Mercury Montego models for 1972
1972?!?! Wow. Nevermind that almost no one on the staff back then is still working here now.... I guess we should be flattered that someone is pulling out obscure references to 30 year old test results - at least we're on someone's mind.

Yannis, those people who reported on Volvo reliability are your customers. CR's subscribers are likely to be some of the most loyal Volvo owners out there. The cars frequently score well in our testing. So why bash CU?

All opinions my own, not CUs.

Tom, who is waiting/hoping for a V50XC
 

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Re: The toastmaster from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light... (mutcth)

Sorry to offend you but this report was not my word, someone else who may not be as "biased" as me wrote it.

Honestly, I don't think that the advice you guys provide in many products is "junk" (per se) but I do think that you guys are not 100% objective (like 99% of the car magazines are not, either).

You, for a good reason I must admit but it was way overdone, NAILED Volvo for poor reliability while you failed to inform the rest of the public that it was only the 1999 models that had the poor reliability (S80) and in the case of the AWD models you kept your "unreliability" opinions current and as early as a year ago. ALl of a sudden, 2000 and 2001 XCs are OK? I call that "stuck your feet in your mouths"...I am sorry that I am coming pretty strong but as far as I am concerned, your credibility is shot. Sure, you will claim the usual "I sell Volvos and what else am I going to say". No, I am as objective as I can be. I am the first to admit that 1998s and 1999s were not good model years for Volvo. I have been with them since MY1994 and have been selling models as early as MY1986. MY1998 and MY1999 did tarnish my opinion on the type of reliability I was used to but I saw the changes right away with MY2000 cars. But you did not or you FAILED to notice. In the meantime, 2001 models were almost flawless and you still failed to even make an obsevation that these cars have turned it around. Now, under staggering evidence that these cars have improved dramatically (and after J.D. Power and Associates ranked them TOPS in Initial Quality) you guys stepped up to the plate and "recommended" them.

What about the HUGE problems that BMWs and Mercedes are facing? You claim that you survey our owners...What percentage of the, approximately, 110,000 NEW owners per each model year have you been surveying? I have seen HUGE amounts of complaints from BMW owners and Mercedes owners (let's not touch Audi here, too) but the extreme black marks in CR are missing...

Well, I can go on and on but it is getting kind of old.

BTW, let's not forget your infamous "jiggly ride" comments that have followed almost every single Volvo from 1994 and forth...99% of our customers who bring it up start laughing at this absurd descritpion once they drive the cars...We just chuckle...

Yannis
 

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Re: The toastmaster from Consumer Reports have finally seen the light... (GrecianVolvo)

Yannis, thanks for the fairly measured response. But I think you believe that we manipulate our reliability data more than we do.

Remember - our reliability data is simply the result of analyzing subscriber survey responses. We don't add any editorial spin to it - we can't fail to notice things that subscribers aren't telling us (and it will take some time for improvements to show up.) I agree that some of the widescale changes in reliability info - the jump of VW Golf/Jetta from "average" to "much worse than average" all in one year - don't make much sense. But that sometimes happens when you don't "massage" the data.

You're right about recent MBz and BMW products - they don't show the black blobs that some Volvo products do. Remember though that reliability is based on each model year - a 1 or 2 year old car can have only a few average (clear) blobs and be considered a poor bet, compared to other almost new cars. You're looking there at problems that occur on less than 10% of all of the cars sold - so most people (like your customers) won't see the problem. Still, they're less reliable than other cars and are called out as such. The scoring, while statistically significant, is a fine-tooth-comb and by definition (as shown in the magazine) somewhat severe.

Ride? I have several friends who own 850 turbos, and yeah, they ride a bit on the rough side. (They're not a coal cart though.) I agree with you that this is something you get in a car with a suspension tuned for handling - but somehow BMW manages to pull off a better combination of the two. The 02 V70XC I rented for 800 miles wasn't as smooth riding as my Passat - but my Passat can't really go off-road. The people at auto test see a lot more cars than either of us do, so their perspectives are different.

All opinions my own, not CUs.

Tom
 
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