Britain needs Power at its elbow

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Reliability was once the single most important factor when buying a new car. This is hardly surprising; after all, if the car failed to perform its primary duty - getting from A to B - then the fetching styling, the low price and the shiny red paint job wouldn't really be of much use. Back in the bad old days of BL, when British cars spent as much time on the hard shoulder as they did in the fast lane, reliability was crucial. It's one reason why BL sales crumbled. It's what gave the Japanese their foothold in Europe.

Now, it's changed. The Japanese have given the world the assumption of mechanical reliability. Everyone else has tried hard to match them. In many cases, they've come close. In all cases, they've improved. If a car fails on the road, it fails in the showroom. There's just no room for the old BL excuses these days - which is why car reliability is no longer the main buying factor. All cars are reliable even if, like equality, some are more reliable than others. Instead, apart from one's own past experience, style is now the number one factor when buying a car.

Yet as a recent plethora of consumer studies have just shown, the differences between the makers of the most reliable cars and the least reliable are still meaningful. As the strugglers try to catch the Japanese, so the Japanese - in turn - just keep getting better.

The best publicised study, on owner satisfaction and car quality, was done by the American consumer group JD Power in conjunction with Top Gear, the television programme and magazine. Viewers and readers of two-year- old cars were urged to respond and, in turn, JD Power sent out questionnaires. There were 16,498 responses. It showed that Subaru was top manufacturer, that the Toyota Corolla was the single model that gave owners most satisfaction, and that big sellers such as the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Mondeo languished near the bottom - even though 80 per cent of M-reg Ford buyers still found themselves satisfied.

Predictably, those makers who did badly accused JD Power of unfairness. Those manufacturers who did well took out ads. The main accusation is that JD Power uses self-selectors - in other words, people asked to be surveyed, not vice versa. Thus it was not a random survey. Some marketeers will tell you that makes it flawed.

A month or two back, What Car? - Top Gear's major magazine rival - had its own survey done in conjunction with the vehicle leasing company Lex. This one sampled 73,000 fleet cars. It rated Mitsubishi as the maker of the most reliable vehicles, followed by BMW, Mercedes and Honda. There were some massive variations compared with JD Power - Fiat did well in Lex but badly with JD Power - even though, broadly, Japanese makers again did best. Although the Lex survey undoubtedly helps consumers, its main failing is obvious: it did not ask the opinions of private buyers. Nor did it take into account experiences with dealers, one of the key aspects of JD Power, and a major factor in owner satisfaction.

In July, Which? comes out with its annual car reliability survey. This, as with the other two, usually tends to show the primacy of the Japanese, and the failings of Ford, Rover and Vauxhall. These surveys may be inconclusive in some areas, but they're pretty emphatic in others. If you seek solid satisfaction from your car, and your dealer, you're best advised to buy Japanese and, in particular, Toyota, Honda, Subaru or Mitsubishi.

There's little doubt, though, that Britain still lacks the definitive car-buying satisfaction guide. In America, they have it - and it's also done by JD Power. There, makers await the results just as keenly as they await sales data. Indeed, the latter often follows the former. Good JD Power ratings in America can help make a marque (it contributed to Lexus's rise), while poor results can kill them (it helped to get rid of Yugo, and not before time).

The key difference in America is that they don't need people volunteering to be surveyed in order to build a database of owners. In America, JD Power, helped by the Freedom of Information Act, buys the names and addresses of the vehicle owners direct from the US equivalent of the DVLA, the state- run DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). They then send out questionnaires at random. Responses are invariably much bigger. Typically, 30,000 people respond, double the British rate. More questions can also be asked. In America, buyers are asked specifically about their thoughts on initial quality (after 90 days of ownership and again after one year), as well as longer term satisfaction.

JD Power approached the DVLA back in the early Nineties but was rebuffed. Subsequent approaches have also been made. The answer was again no: the DVLA wanted to preserve the confidentiality of its files. A major consumer service was thus denied us. Mind you, part of me retains a grudging respect for an organisation that refuses to sell its "client" data base. If only my bank were that principled.

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