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Last week, J.D. Power and Associates released its annual "Initial Quality Study," and the hype is continuing right through this week. But there's some news the carmakers don't want you to know - like overall quality is declining.

“Honda Achieves Its Best-Ever Result in 2011 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study,” bragged the carmaker’s website last Thursday.

“Chevy Tahoe, HHR Top Their Segments in J.D. Power Initial Quality Study,” bragged the General Motors website on the same day.

“Lexus Earns Four Segment Awards in J.D. Power and Associates 2011 Initial Quality Study,” Toyota boasted on its website.

Welcome to the annual media feeding frenzy around the famous J.D. Powers survey, which for a quarter of a century has quizzed car owners on their satisfaction with what’s probably the second-most expensive purchase they’ll ever make.

But what makes the J.D. Power IQS (short for Initial Quality Study) such a powerful PR weapon for carmakers? Two things:

  1. The survey is huge – “based on responses from more than 73,000 purchasers and lessees,” J.D. Powers says.
  2. The survey is specific – asking questions only on “vehicle quality during the first 90 days of ownership.”

So every carmaker who can glean any good news from the annual rankings will shout those facts as loud as it can – and the ones who stink will make lots of excuses. (Check out how Dodge tried to dodge responsibility for its last-place finish when it told USA Today over the weekend that it suffered because of “a couple of vehicles that were not updated for 2011.”)

But there’s one part of the J.D. Powers IQS you’re not going to hear carmakers crowing about – and it’s from the very first sentence of its own press release

“After an improvement in the quality of newly launched models every year from 2007 to 2010, the initial quality of 2011 new model launches has declined considerably. … The decline in vehicle launch quality is evident in a number of areas, most notably the engine/transmission and audio/entertainment/navigation categories.”

J.D. Powers attributes the quality decline to two big reasons…

  1. Because high gas prices are cutting into the profit margins, and because the government is demanding more fuel efficiency, “automakers are designing engine and transmission software to make their models as economical as possible,” J.D. Powers says. “This sometimes leads to the engine or transmission ‘hesitating’ when accelerating or changing gears, and consumers this year are reporting this as a problem more often than in past years.”
  2. At the same time carmakers are cutting back on their engines, they’re packing more computer technology into the dashboard, including hands-free and voice-activation systems. Those add both convenience and safety to a vehicle – when they work. “Some vehicle owners report that their system is not intuitive and/or does not always function properly,” the IQS reports.

For the vehicles that topped the 2011 IQS, J.D. Powers put together a slideshow of its Award Recipients in 21 categories.

But if you’re in the market for a new car, J.D. Power offers much more than just the IQS. If you go to the Autos section of its website, you can type in your desired make, model, and year. You’ll get the essential facts (fuel economy, horsepower) plus J.D. Powers’ own “initial quality” and “predicted reliability” ratings.

But your search shouldn’t end there. Here are a handful of other useful sites that offer similar but slightly different information. If you check out all of these and still like the car you’ve targeted, you can buy with more confidence…

  • Consumer Reports is famous for its thorough testing of new cars. The Best new car deals page of its website is easy to read and links to more detailed research, some free and some requiring $12 to $14. 
  • Kelley Blue Book is known as the definitive source for what your used car is worth – KBB is the depreciation expert. But it also offers lots of solid advice for figuring out what to pay for a new car
  • Edmunds.com claims it was “launched in 1995 as the first automotive information Web site.” It offers reviews and pricing advice, and coupled with Kelley, J.D. Powers, and Kelley Blue Book, you cover all the bases.

If you’re shopping for a new car, it’s become almost Money Talks News policy to remind you to consider a used car. Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has never bought a new car in his life. So before you sign on the dotted line, read his Why I Don’t Buy New Cars and 8 Tips for Buying a $5,000 Car. Armed with the websites above and these two articles, you’ll have more than enough information to buy a vehicle that tops the most important customer satisfaction tanking of all: Yours.

Stacy Johnson

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