If there’s one piece of advice I find myself sanctimoniously preaching to prospective car shoppers, it’s this: There’s no such thing as a bad car anymore.
Long, long ago, in the early 1990s, Kia Motors expanded to the United States, bringing with it little economical runabouts like the Sephia sedan and the Sportage crossover. There was just one problem: These cars weren’t exactly what we’d describe as “good.” Sub-100-hp engines, crude transmissions, and interiors featuring more plastics than Mean Girls. The little Sephia couldn’t even deliver great fuel economy, barely eking out 27 mpg highway with its automatic transmission. A ‘94 Ford Escort could manage 5 mpg better with nearly identical power specs.
But oh, how times have changed. Despite a poor first impression, Kia has emerged as a shining example of the fact that there really are no more “bad” cars. Every year, J.D. Power conducts its Initial Quality Study, wherein car owners are surveyed to determine which vehicles deliver the best experience within the first 90 days. By placing first on J.D. Power’s 2016 U.S. Initial Quality Study, Kia earned the honor of being the first non-premium brand in 27 years to take home Gold.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Where the Kia Sephia left us cold, the Kia Soul breathes in a little excitement, coming in first among all compact multi-purpose vehicles (whatever that means). The early Sportage was—at best—a utility-oriented tool, but this year the new Sportage took home the initial quality crown for small SUVs, impressing with its UVO infotainment system and an optional 260-hp turbocharged 4-cylinder. Although Porsche and Lexus continue to perform in the top percentiles, Hyundai, Toyota, and Chevrolet also ranked among the best in an industry where luxury brands generally dominate.
Renee Stephens, J.D. Power’s Vice President of U.S. Automotive Quality, commented that “manufacturers are currently making some of the highest quality products we’ve ever seen.” As such, shoppers may need to recalibrate how they qualify a car as “bad” or “good.” Sure, there are some marques that continue to live up (or down?) to a reputation for unreliability–Land Rover scored poorly in overall quality–but the electrical gremlins, rust-susceptible bodywork, and inevitable mechanical catastrophes are becoming few and far between. Rather than steering clear of entire brands or writing off a particular model altogether, shoppers should watch out for specific, often-faulty components instead. Subaru’s head-gasket issues might dissuade a shopper from a particular generation of Forester, but shouldn’t bring anyone to label Subaru a low-quality automaker.
Kia is enjoying the spotlight this year, but it’s not the only brand to show improvement. Non-premium brands actually recorded fewer problems per 100 vehcies (PP100) than premium brands, and domestic brands all improved over their scores from 2015.
These studies are critically important to the future of not only individual vehicles, but to manufacturers as a whole. While maybe not quite on the same level as Apple-products fandom, brand loyalty matters more in the auto business than almost anywhere else. It’s not exactly rocket science: When a shopper enjoys great initial quality from their car purchase, they’re more likely to purchase the same model, or at least the same make, again. According to J.D. Power, if a new purchase needs to head to the shop once within the first 90 days, customer brand loyalty drops to about 50%. Three or more problems, and loyalty drops to 45%. Simply put, good initial quality translates to better sales figures.
Does strong initial quality have you shopping for a Kia?