According to J. D. Powers and Associates, the initial quality of new vehicles improved five percent in 2012 over last year’s numbers. But that doesn’t mean that quality issues are a thing of the past for automakers.
You only need look no further back than the recent woes of Toyota to realize that although overall automotive industry quality continues to improve, internal failures of automotive quality management systems within an organization can still drastically affect a brand’s reputation and thus its sales.
The industry has been plagued over the years with quality management system shortfalls that have lead to the deaths of hundreds of people and the recall of millions of vehicles for safety-related issued. In many cases, profits have been the driver behind quality failures in the industry.
Since quality is a driver of safety, it stands to reason then that in order to improve safety and reduce the number of recalls mandated by the NHTSA and thus the reputation of the industry, auto industry leaders must re-evaluate their commitment to quality, and look back at the industry to find similar failures and avoid repeating them.
The Top 5 Automotive Quality Management System Failures
1. Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat (Model Years 1971 to 1976)
In order to compete with burgeoning Japanese imports, Ford Motor Company mandated the production of a car that would cost no more than $2000 and weigh no more than 2000 pounds. The result was the Ford Pinto and its cousin the Mercury Bobcat. As the car neared production, engineers discovered that it failed rear end collision tests miserably due to the location of its fuel tank between the rear bumper and rear axle. Despite being made aware of the problem, Ford management decided to leave the car as is, electing to bear the cost of any lawsuits versus spend the $11 per car to fix the problem. In 1978, after over 100 deaths caused by fuel tank fires were reported due to rear end collisions, the NHTSA recalled 1.4 million Pintos and Bobcats to modify the fuel tank. Ford’s reputation suffered terribly, being seen as the company that put profit ahead of safety, and drove even more buyers to imported cars, the purpose for creating the Pinto from the start.
2. Various General Motors Models (Model Years 1997 to 2003)
Although it had been producing and heavily utilizing its 3.8L V-6 engine for decades, General Motors was forced to recall 1.5 million vehicles due to engine fires that could ignite when oil dripped onto the exhaust manifold during hard braking conditions. An oil leak in the engine could catch fire when exposed to the hot manifold, melting a plastic spark plug wire retainer located directly overhead. The plastic can ignite, resulting in a full-blown engine compartment fire. The NHTSA issued the recall in 2009, six years after the last model was produced. Ironically, General Motors is recently recalled almost half a million Chevrolet Cruze’s for a very similar problem.
3. Ford Explorer (Model Years 1991 to 2001)
Ford owed much of its profitability in the 1990s to the popularity of it’s SUV icon, the Ford Explorer. But it was quickly discovered that the Explorer was top-heavy, tending to roll over during emergency handling maneuvers. The problem was not enough of an issue in and of itself to cause Ford to re-evaluate the Explorer. However, many were outfitted with Firestone tires, which had their own tread separation issues. When combined, the unstable vehicle and faulty tires lead to the deaths of over 200 people. Ford recalled Explorers in 2001 to replace more than 6.5 million faulty tires. Despite the fact that the Explorer was redesigned in 2002, it never regained its dominance in the SUV marketplace.
4. Ford Various Models (1988 to 1993)
In 2002, Ford was court-ordered to recall 7.9 million cars and trucks due to a faulty ignition module. The module’s location on top of the distributor would cause it to overheat and fail, causing cars to stall and lose control of steering and braking. Ford was aware of the problem, but rather than relocating the module to a cooler location at the urging of their engineers, they chose instead to beef up the module to make it last just long enough to exceed the warranty period, forcing owners to bear the cost of replacement. The module had been installed on over 22 million Ford cars and trucks, but by the time the recall was issued, only about one-third of them remained.
5. Toyota Various Models (2005 to 2010)
Removable floor mats were identified as the cause of Toyota’s recall of 9 million cars in the U.S. The floor mats were found to move and wedge the accelerator in position, causing it to stick and lead to a potential crash. When the recall was announced, 52 deaths had been attributed to the issue. Despite proactively cancelling the sales and production of the recalled models, Toyota’s reputation as a quality leader was damaged.
There have been many other image-damaging recalls over the years that did not make the list but deserve some notation.
The Runner Ups
General Motors’ X-cars were recalled 13 different times over the course of their short two year life for a variety of safety and mechanical issues.
The Plymouth Volare / Dodge Aspen were recalled a total of 8 times, and were notorious for premature body rusting and mechanical failures.
And the Audi 5000, despite much lower total recall numbers, suffered the same flaw as Toyota with a faulty floor mat causing the accelerator to stick. The drop in sales due to bad press from the “unexpected acceleration issue” almost caused Audi to close its doors.
In all of these cases as well, the reputation of the manufacturer suffered, and it has taken them years to recover from their shortcomings.