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A Survey of New Cars Finds More Tech Means More Problems

More tech, more problems. That could describe many situations in which the universe finds itself these days. In this case, it’s the takeaway from this year’s edition of the vehicle quality survey from the market analytics company JD Power, the first to rank the quality of Tesla’s vehicles.

The report, based on more than 87,000 surveys from owners of 2020 model vehicles in the first three months of ownership, found many more problems than last year’s edition—an average of 166 per 100 vehicles, compared with 93 per 100 vehicles in 2019. Doug Betts, the president of JD Power’s automotive division and a former Apple executive, says the figures aren’t comparable, because JD Power changed the questions to ask car owners about newer features like touch-free trunk sensors and specific aspects of their infotainment systems. The more features and tech packed into a vehicle, “the more opportunities for problems, certainly,” Betts says.

Betts points to that dynamic to explain why premium car brands have done relatively poorly on JD Power’s initial quality survey in recent years. Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand, took the number two spot in the brand rankings with 142 problems per 100 vehicles. After that, only Lexus (159 problems per 100 vehicles) and Cadillac (162 problems per 100 vehicles) beat the industry average of 166 problems per 100 vehicles. Luxury vehicles aren’t less safe than their mass market brethren. In fact, all of today’s cars have fewer scary defects than they did a few decades ago. But because premium car owners pay more money for more stuff, they may be more likely to report problems when that stuff doesn’t work.

Owners are having issues with glitchy and hard-to-use infotainment systems, an area in which automotive companies have not always excelled. People find navigating the menus mysterious; they complain about the poor quality of built-in voice recognition systems; they can’t connect their phones via Bluetooth. They even have trouble connecting with Apple Carplay and Android Auto, which integrate users’ phone operating systems with their vehicle display and are meant to bring intuitive, Silicon Valley-level user interfaces into your car.

Overall, Fiat-Chrysler’s Dodge brand tied with Korea’s Kia for the quality gold, with 136 problems per 100 vehicles. Chevrolet, Ram, Buick, GMC, Jeep, and Cadillac also ranked above the industry average, making for Detroit automakers’ best performance since JD Power started its quality survey 34 years ago. Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Audi, and Land Rover did the worst.

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