After years of struggling to close the quality gap with rivals, Chrysler Corp. finally has something to gloat about.
The Auburn Hills, Mich.-based auto maker on Wednesday received its first top scores for initial quality from J.D. Power & Associates, the Agoura Hills-based auto market researcher.
Two of Chrysler's mid-size sedans, the Concorde and smaller Cirrus, received the best-quality ratings in their class. The Concorde got top billing in the premium class and Cirrus was honored in the entry mid-size category. The Dodge Caravan also ranked second in quality among minivans.
"Chrysler is obviously making progress on quality," said Wes Brown, analyst for Nextrend, an auto consulting firm in Thousand Oaks.
Despite the trophies, Chrysler still lags industry leaders. When all its models are considered, the auto maker still ranks below the industry average for quality in the first 90 days of ownership.
Yet Chrysler is clearly improving. A year ago, the company reported a 20% improvement on initial quality, and internal Chrysler studies show an additional 11% gain this year.
"This is a harbinger of the future," said Richard Schaum, vice president of quality for Chrysler. "But we are not naive. We have to continue getting better."
The quality gains by Chrysler came as J.D. Power changed the annual consumer survey, which was introduced in 1987. The study, widely regarded as the best measure of new-vehicle quality, was expanded from 89 questions to 135, including several on new technologies and features that are becoming standard equipment on new vehicles, such as anti-lock brakes and air bags.
Because of the additional questions, the average number of problems per 100 vehicles jumped from 86 a year ago to 176 in 1998. But Chance Parker, director of product research at J.D. Power, said that did not reflect a decline in quality, but rather changes in the studies.
In fact, comparisons of 1997 results with this year's indicate that auto makers have maintained the record levels of quality found last year.
Quality has long been regarded as Chrysler's Achilles' heel. Even as it became a low-cost producer with eye-catching designs, many customers steered clear because of its reputation for shoddy workmanship.
Some Chrysler officials complained that the quality gap was becoming meaningless. Last year, the company reported an average of 103 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with an industry average of 86. That translates into a mere 1.03 problems per Chrysler vehicle versus 0.86 for the industry as a whole.
When Chrysler agreed last month to a $40-billion merger with Daimler-Benz, parent of luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz, analysts said the U.S. auto maker might get a much needed boost in quality control.
Under the prodding of Chairman Robert Eaton, Chrysler has already been on a quality-improvement crusade for several years. The auto maker is spending huge sums to upgrade old manufacturing plants, relying on computer simulations to improve designs and manufacturing processes and slowing launches to stem any quality glitches.
If Chrysler was the big winner in this year's quality contest, General Motors was the loser. GM vehicles did not rank first in any of the 13 categories. Toyota, Honda and Ford all had three winners. The Lexus LS400, Toyota's winner in the premium luxury category, had the best overall score with 75 problems per 100 vehicles.
The survey also lists the top three models in each vehicle segment. Ford and Honda each had seven models ranking within the top three; Toyota, six; GM, five; Nissan, four; and Chrysler and BMW, three each.
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Not Much Trouble
Consumers report an average of 176 problems per every 100 vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership, according to a survey of 58,000 owners of 1998 model vehicles. For the first time, Chrysler received the top rating in two segments. The most problem-free vehicle was the Lexus LS400. The lower the score, the better.
Vehicle segment Average rating* Compact car 170 Entry mid-size car 197 Premium mid-size car 157 Sporty car 201 Entry luxury car 137 Premium luxury car 131 Sports car 161 Compact pickup 193 Full-size pickup 176 Compact van 196 Compact sport-utility vehicle 198 Full-size SUV 167 Luxury SUV 187
Best vehicle Rating* Ford Escort 149 Chrysler Cirrus 163 Chrysler Concorde 123 Honda Prelude 127 Lexus ES300 94 Lexus LS400 75 Mercedes-Benz SLK 124 Nissan Frontier 154 Toyota T100 136 Honda Odyssey 134 Honda CR-V 133 Ford Expedition 132 Infiniti QX4 144 Lincoln Navigator 144
*Problems reported per 100 vehicles
Source: J.D. Power & Associates