Monday, October 3, 2011

Quirky vs Quality?

I filled out the JD Power initial quality survey for my car today. Like most new cars, there's little to nothing to complain about in terms or reliability or build quality. The fact is that even the least reliable, lowest quality new car would put most cars from the 80s to shame. And that's a problem for a company that makes its money off of selling the results of its quality surveys to automakers. If they're basically all the same, where's the drama?

In an effort to cull the herd, JD Power started to ask survey recipients about design and ergonomic issues. If you have trouble figuring out how to use the radio, that's a black mark. And in this age of iPhones and iPads, well designed interfaces are the expectation, not a nice-to-have. But adding these questions to the survey has caused problems for some carmakers, especially the Germans.

German automakers have always had their own way of doing things. And this approach tends to infuriate the casual user. BMW's first generation i-drive interface was the most infamous example in recent history. The press (rightfully) pilloried it as a nightmare. With a single controller that could be twisted and pushed in 8 directions controlling nearly every feature in the car, there were bound to be problems. But from small, unmarked radio  buttons, to multi-step processes to dim the dash lights Germans (and European carmakers in general)  have a long tradition of confusing ergonomics. 

But will these new quality criteria eventually inspire these automakers to be less quirky and "unique"?  Hard to say. One one hand, there's Mini which makes funky cabin design a brand feature (and gets heavily dinged on quality studies for it). Even finding the window switches can be a problem for a first-timer (they're toggle switches mounted in the center console).  On the high end, Mercedes seems to favor lots of identically sized radio and climate control buttons in their interiors. Then there's VW, which has embarked on an effort to  make their cars more mainstream and approachable. The recently unveiled US-made Passat, for example, has large radio buttons and simple rotary climate controls.

I should make a distinction between "quirky" and "needlessly complex".  While you might not  be able to find the ignition slot easily on an old Porsche 911 or Saab 900, once you do, it makes the car feel a bit more special. On the other hand, having to navigate through several submenus of a touch screen interface to change radio stations or even sync up your bluetooth phone is just plain annoying.  While small cars like the Fiat 500, and Mini Cooper are attempting to bring back some of that retro quirkiness, most new cars either attempt to appeal to the 75 year old technophobe or to an imaginary "Gen Y" kid who wants to control the entire car with an iPad. In reality, I think most people (young and old) crave actual knobs and buttons in their cars that work well.

So should design faults be counted against automakers? Yes, but I'd  like to see it summarized in a separate report. As for the design faults, I'd like to see them broken down by whether they were solvable by reading the owners manual, or whether they are issues that will continue to irritate.