Ford & the Troubling Consumer Reports Results

In the midsize SUV category, a category that Ford helped define, there are six vehicles listed under “Most Reliable,” and none of them carry a blue oval.

The Consumer Reports 2013 Annual Auto Survey seems somewhat schizophrenic.  That is, there is considerable issue with automotive electronics (“Of the 17 problem areas we ask about, the category including in-car electronics generated more beefs from owners of 2013 models than for any other category.”), yet among the top models are cars that are fundamentally predicated on electronics: electrified vehicles, including the Toyota Prius, the Lexus ES 300h, the Toyota Prius c, the Honda CR-Z, and the Nissan LEAF.

But maybe it is an issue simply of those who know how to do it right execute well, and those who don’t. . . .

Over in Dearborn, there ought to be massive consternation.  Ford and Lincoln swapped spots from last year’s CR survey.

But they are, respectively, at 26 and 27, and there are only 28 slots on the list.

Many of the problems associated with those two brands stem from their infotainment systems, MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch, two of the worst names in automotive nomenclature.  Apparently, owners of the vehicles equipped with those systems are finding the experience of using them to be more troubling than the names.

If only that were the end of it.  CR reports, “Several models with its EcoBoost turbocharged V6 engines have landed on the bottom reliability rung as well.  The problems may have more to do with components that go with the engine, such as the fuel pump or the rough-shifting transmission, than the engine itself.”

Given that “EcoBoost” has become a highly valuable marketing differentiator for Ford, any besmirching of that name can’t be a good thing for the company.  And given that the fuel pump is a fairly important element of the engine vis-à-vis its performance, to say that the problem is not necessarily with “the engine itself” is somewhat specious.  It is an engine problem.

And while, of course, the transmission isn’t the engine, rough-shifting problems is something that Ford should have been keenly aware of, given its experience with the dual-clutch transmissions that had their U.S. debut in the Fiesta and Focus a few years back.  That transmission was known as the “PowerShift.”  You can tell how successful it was based on the fact that unless you owned one and spent a lot of time talking to your dealer about it, you probably have never heard of the “PowerShift” transmission.

CR concludes: “almost two-thirds of the 34 Fords and Lincolns in our survey got scores that were much worse than average.”

One can only imagine eyes rolling up and back at the Glass House as they read the list of vehicles that are “Not recommended,” added to the list because they are “Models that now have sufficient data but are below average”: C-Max Hybrid, Escape 1.6 EcoBoost, Escape 2.0 EcoBoost (which means two out of three Escape powertrain offerings are not recommended), Focus ST, Fusion 1.6 EcoBoost, and Fusion Hybrid.

To be fair, I should note that there are two other cars on the list, the Cadillac XTS and the Nissan Pathfinder.  But when you have six out of eight, as my friend the Autoextremist, Peter DeLorenzo, might put it, “That’s a heaping, steaming bowl of Not Good.”  And that’s only a bigger mound if you take into account the numerous cars, trucks and SUVs from Ford and Lincoln that are simply on the “Least Reliable” list.

No number of Mike Rowe ads is going to undo what these results show for Ford.  Consider: in the midsize SUV category, a category that Ford helped define, there are six vehicles listed under “Most Reliable,” and none of them carry a blue oval but four of them have a “T” in an oval.  On the other side of the ledger, there are four “Least Reliable,” two of which do have the blue oval (Explorer, Edge).

They must be thanking their hard-core truck engineers, because Ford’s “above average” vehicle, its only “above average” vehicle, is the F-150 with the 3.7-liter V6 (not the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6).

The objective here is not to stomp on Ford predicated on Consumer Reports.  But it is to make the point that Ford, of late, really seems to be riding along on incredibly good buzz among those in the market and in the media, a considerable amount of which is directly related to the charismatic and effective Alan Mulally.  Mulally, 68, is expected to remain at Ford until the end of 2014, but there has been speculation that he might return to Seattle (remember that he came to Ford in 2006 from Boeing) to take the helm of Microsoft, sooner rather than later.

The reporting on Ford has been almost uniformly positive.  The traction at Ford dealerships has been growing.

Good reputations are hard to achieve and easy to lose.

Mulally or no Mulally, Ford simply cannot afford to have such subpar performance.  Some people might argue that the methodology that Consumer Reports uses is deeply flawed, but be that as it may, there are still a whole lot of consumers out there who make their buying choices influenced more by that magazine than by any number of other publications and paid advertisements.

If Ford is having problems with its infotainment systems, then perhaps it ought to face up to the fact that instead of trying to make “fixes” it ought to turn it over to one of the companies that has a 650 area code.  Then resources could be put over to where Ford has skills, which is powertrain engineering.

There is no reason why one of the best auto companies in the world should score 68% (average of Ford and Lincoln) below the industry average on the Consumer Reports survey.