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by Robert Alvine

You’ve probably heard of JD Power. They’re a research company whose survey results are touted by dozens of companies in multiple categories.

James David Power III  had been in advertising and consumer research for one of the large auto manufacturers.  He began his own firm in 1968 and called it “JD Power and Associates”.  The associates referred to in the title – his wife and young children – stuffed envelopes for the first surveys.  The company has grown each year, and has gotten to the point where it is the de facto survey company that industries turn to and customers trust. In the fifty years since inception, it’s gone from a kitchen table idea to a company worth over a billion dollars.

Each year, JD Power undertake hundreds of quality-based surveys in dozens of industries, ranging from insurance to aerospace, and just about everything in between.  But the most important research they do is still in the automotive industry.

What Gets Measured…

While they undertake a wide variety of automotive surveys, there are two that eclipse the rest in significance.  The first one is called the VDS, or Vehicle Dependability Survey. It measures problems over five years.  While that’s important, most consumers and automakers don’t pay as much attention to it, possibly because short-term leasing has become so popular that few care about what happens over five years. The one that everyone pays attention to is the IQS, or Initial Quality Survey.  Dave Sargent, VP of Automotive at JD Power says “That’s the one [automakers] would give almost anything to win,” and added “They take it extremely seriously.”

Their IQS research analyzes over seventy-six thousand responses from new vehicle owners across 257 different models of vehicles.  Those owners are asked about everything from engine performance to electronic issues and the JD Power surveys are thought to be the most comprehensive surveys for measuring vehicle quality.

A Strange Change

The results of the JD Power Automotive IQS surveys have largely been consistent with our perception of the quality and reliability of the auto brands.  For many years, the Japanese and German brands were at or near the top, the British were at the bottom, and the American brands mostly concentrated somewhere in the middle.

For example, If we go back to to the beginning of the decade, the top scores on the IQS survey were for Porsche, Acura, Mercedes Benz and Lexus.  Ford and Honda led the non-luxury brands.  Kia was 25th.  Jaguar and Land Rover were dead last (as they were pretty much every year).  Everything was as it should be.  There were a few surprises, but overall it was consistent with what we all knew.  Or at least we thought we knew…

Let’s say you were at a cocktail party in 2010 and for some strange reason you decided to change the topic of conversation to the quality of today’s automobiles. You lead with the fact that you’d recently read a report that Porsche was at the top of the list with Acura, Mercedes and Lexus following.  The room would likely start to clear.  If you followed up by mentioning that Kia was 25th and Jaguar and Land Rover were at the bottom, although those facts were all accurate, you’d likely be asked to leave.  Or at least start drinking more.

A Short Nine Years Later

To begin with, understand that in this survey, the brands are essentially in one of two categories, luxury or non-luxury.  BMW, Mercedes, Acura, Lexus, Porsche et. al. are obviously luxury brands.  Every brand not in the luxury category is considered non-luxury (the category for the rest of us).  Pretty simple.

So when this year’s announcement was made that Genesis was the winner of the luxury category (for the second year in a row), it was a bit of a surprise.

Genesis is a three-year-young Korean company and is the luxury division of the Hyundai and Kia group.  They have an extremely limited lineup of just three sedans and no SUVs.  They cost  close to half the price of the offerings from some of the established luxury marques in the same category.

But Genesis still came out on top, and did so for the second year in a row. Normally, that would be the story.

The Real Story

But the real story is this.  In the non-luxury category-where most brands live, one automaker has taken the top-quality crown for five straight years.  And while a streak like that is on its own newsworthy (no other brand has ever done it), the irony is that it’s from a brand that just a few years ago was 25th.  A brand that most people previously wouldn’t immediately think of as being at anywhere near the top of the category.

That brand is Kia.

Equally surprising, in the final list of the ten vehicles in the entire auto industry (luxury and non-luxury categories both included), Kia led all brands with four.  One car company with nearly half of all of the top-rated vehicles for 2019.  Unthinkable.

Let that sink in for a moment.  Kia has higher quality than Honda, higher than Toyota, Ford, Chevrolet and any other non-luxury brand.  And higher than most luxury brands too.  Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Audi and the rest.  Kia beats every one.

Kia’s advertising tagline is “The Power to Surprise”.  In a world of exaggeration, that one’s about as accurate as they get.

So if you’re looking for cocktail conversation that’ll keep the attention of everyone around, tell them a story about a surprising car.

But have the printed article in your jacket pocket in case you have to prove it.