Sunday, 8 July 2012

Torquing point:- Quality Matters?

Audis are put together very carefully and made out of nice stuff. We all know this. My own venerable A4 has only ever gone wrong once (the water pump expired thanks to a wildly inadequate plastic impellor, no doubt a part bought by an external supplier and not really Audi's fault:- benefit of the doubt issued), despite my maintenance habits being of the "keep me mobile" variety, not the money-no-object, preserve-for-eternity mindset afforded to more valuable machines (as in more than £750...).

Every time I drive mine, I am reminded how every single interior attribute is OK at the very least. Not one aspect is insufferable, and those that are merely adequate are certainly liveable. The only significant demerit is the paucity of rear legroom; a design travesty, not a quality issue. So when  I read of Audi's current quality crusades (CAR, issue 600), I was left wondering whether really, to be quite honest, they wouldn't be better off sitting back with a nice cup of tea and resting on their laurels for a while.

Does quality sell a car, really?

(Image stolen from CAR, issue 600 (July 2012))

If you go on to read the rest of this ROADWORK entry, you will note my total lack of empirical research, my absolute failure to offer reliable statistics and my resolute unwillingness to offer any proof of my suspicions. It might make you cross; but I'll rest easy in the knowledge that I offer only an opinion based on stuff I've actually seen, and things that people have said. Here's my take on the answer:

"Nope, not really."

I've been a car salesman before now, selling German cars from both the brand with the blue and white propeller and the one with the bonnet-mounted gun sight. Now, I might have sold considerably fewer cars than you've had hot dinners; If I had a pound for every car I've ever sold I'd probably just about have enough money to get my own car serviced. But still, in no case that I can summon to the forefront of my mind has the customer ever commented on anything pertaining to quality.

This means either of two things: A) they don't care about quality, or B) they don't actually know the difference.

Nine times out of ten (statistics brought to you by the Chris Haining Institute For Random Numbers), the customer has pretty much got their mind made up before they visit the showroom. Indeed, such is their enthusiasm for their chosen car that they will unerringly overlook fundamental shortcomings in a car if you say the right things:

Not to in any way condone dishonesty; but leading the customer is a legitimate sales technique. I conducted an experiment once, took a customer out in a Mercedes B-Class with sports suspension; a setup notoriously unyielding over any surface that isn't spilt-mercury grade flat. Accompanying the eager client along a local back-road with a surface that looks like it's just erupted, with the B-Class bucking and kicking from rut to pothole, I animatedly suggested "the ride quality's quite good, isn't it?" To which came the reply: 

"Yes, it is".

Now, by suffixing the "isn't it" bit, I believe I have skirted around any accusation of lying, indeed I actually asked the customer for their own opinion on the matter. The resulting answer just displayed that the hapless consumer wouldn't recognise a "good ride quality" if it snuck up and bopped him on the nose.

Equally; there's the customers supposition of what constitutes "Performance" and "Handling", which is far too broad a subject to dissect here and now. Suffice to say, only rarely have I test driven a customer who's exhibited even the merest understanding of how to get the most out of their car. Or; again, maybe they don't understand what those two emotive terms actually mean.

How can you comment on handling when your slow-in, fast-out cornering technique only examines the brakes and the acceleration, and the basic functionality of the steering inasmuch as "can the car be made to turn left or, indeed, right?". Notable is the hot-footed customers giggle or broad smile when they elicit a squeal from the tyres; a feat easily accomplished if you're ham-fisted enough. But tyre-smoke = Top Gear, = "It's a really fast car, isn't it?".

It seems that Performance, Handling and Quality are all terms that can mean whatever you want them to mean. Quality, though, seems to be the one term that's the hardest to pin down. You wonder if even the industry itself have a clear idea of its meaning; Ford in the USA used the phrase "Quality is Job #1" in their marketing for quite some time in the '90s. I assume they were referring to basic robustness and fitness for purpose; their unimpeachable willingness to corrode certainly didn't warrant celebration, nor did their interior appointments which straddled the middle ground between Tupperware and the tray you get in a box of Terry's All Gold.

It's true to say that not one of my customers ever; that I saw, went around the car interior tapping surfaces for resonance or deadness; never search crevices for signs of sharp edges or poor finish; never comment on the lack of continuity between the plastics in the front and the plastics in the back.

Once more I alienate myself from the Auto Journalism zeitgeist by pointing my finger in their direction; just a tad.

Automotive writers are the self-appointed arbiters of what is right or wrong on four wheels. The focus, unavoidably, is on establishing lists; hierarchies and Best Buys. They concern themselves with tangible, quantifiable factors that can be determined and examined; but which, to the man in the showroom, not only aren't really an issue but don't even appear on the radar.

Quality is vital for customer satisfaction. For that ongoing feeling of smugness when you survey your surroundings and remember that you're driving something really special. Be it an expertly weighted switch or a pleasingly damped grab handle, it will continue to delight throughout your time with the car. It's unlikely, though, to make you sign the dotted line.

It's way, way down the list. Way down below driving enjoyment, environmental impact, standard equipment and driving enjoyment. And it couldn't be further from the absolute number-one most influential decision-making factor:


It can split into a variety of components, but the two main slices of the Image Pie are Brand and Style. Style comes first and is the most decisive in building wantability.  At the moment the inescapable Princess of Want is the (bloody) Range Rover Evoque. This is a car that's more "look at me" than a mime artist. It's a car that flaunts its jewellery like 50 Cent at a Liberace Imitation contest. It's a really good, of course, but the legions of them now out there (the vast majority of which are on lease for £359 per month, rather than actually bought by their end users) were certainly not bought after comparative evaluation. No; they were chosen because the Evoque is the latest must-have Four-Wheeled accessory.

It's completely unisex, too. The Evoque draws in interest from male and female alike; unlike the Fiat 500 which was definitely handbag-centric. It's a studied example of design one-upmanship, difficult to be seen as anything but a stylistic dead end (what on earth could its successor look like?). It is the most fashionable car currently on the market; maybe the most marketable car for a generation.

It's the iPhone of the car world. At one point it may well have been the best product of its kind available. But, as in the case with that iconic design, the competition will rapidly strengthen and multiple equally capable alternatives will evolve. But, because of the strength of the image, the great unwashed will remain blind to anything but their elected hero. The Evoque was the right product at the right time. Big wheels, low rooflines, tough stances and laser-death-beam headlamps are where it's at. Quality doesn't really come into it.

It hasn't done, really, for quite a long time. Not just where cars are concerned. Look at music. If the lack of thought put into the majority of weekly chart releases isn't bad enough, the way they are piped into your ears via 128Kbps bitrate tubes ought to be a cause of some revolt. But, it seems, people don't care. They'll happily listen to music produced without care, under high compression and through seriously low-calibre sound equipment. A close friend of my girlfriend who entertains on a regular basis, relies on the output of her £30 iPhone docking station as the sole source for background audio. To be honest, I'd rather have nothing at all than have crap music played at me from poor equipment.

I'm not just being a snob, I'm sure. I'm not being fussy; it's just that I'm sure that Trevor Horn, for example, would shudder to think of his expert productions being played back through equipment without a fraction of the dynamic range to do justice to the music. But, like instant coffee; the consumer seems happy to get a general idea of the flavour; accurate reproduction isn't a priority.

It's noble, charming even that Audi should choose to pay so much attention to the finer details of quality, especially when Korean brands like Kia are rapidly making up ground in desirability and have a colossal (albeit diminishing) advantage in cost. The new big Kia, the Optima, is a genuinely superb looking car, and an extremely adequate one to boot. To a great many value-savvy people, that'll be more than enough, and I can't imagine much gnashing of teeth from Kia owners disgruntled because their "...alloy rim on the top of the gearknob is mounted 19/100ths of a millimetre too high compared to the surrounding leather.". No, they'll be more than happy revelling in the vast quantity of money they've saved by not buying an Audi that's, let's be honest; isn't magically exciting.

Audi are annoying me, actually. They are so self-assured and smug about their brand position that they seem to have lost all track of making their products interesting. The corporate nose is as inevitable and inescapable as a London traffic-light flower-seller. It was OK back in 2003, but, really, it's time to move on. Auto-Union went out with the Ark, that big horseshoe on the nose means far more to Dominic in the sales department of Reigate Toner Supplies than it does to any actual human being you could mention. Also; aside from the TT (which is a far less pure design than the original) I find it to be the devils own job telling most of them apart.

I'll end with an anecdote borrowed from one of my colleagues at a branch of Mercedes. A long time customer and Mercedes-Benz apologist suffered a sudden mechanical failure of his E-Class that marooned him and left him car-less just before the weekend. Mindful of his predicament with family needing to be whisked tomorrow from Airport to Zoo, the service and sales departments liaised to find him a car for the weekend. A freak shortage of loan cars and demonstrators lead to there being nothing for it but to throw him the keys to a recent-ish trade-in car that was strategically cleaned and freshened for this occasions. He said thanks, and went away for the weekend.

Monday after, he returned to Mercedes to collect his E-Class, by now mended and remobilized. Debriefing him and enquiring as to the successes (or otherwise) of the weekend, he gave thanks that his mobility was assured, and remarked of his enjoyment of the car we lent him. "Mercedes make a good 4x4, don't they. I'm very impressed." After which, the Service Advisor took the keys and drove the car back to the trade-in compound.

So what car had we lent him? A Hyundai Santa Fe.

Sometimes you can make your mind up about something without even opening your eyes.

(This tirade of personal opinion would not have been possible were it not for the feature "How Audi's planning to stay ahead in the quality stakes", Insider, CAR issue 600 July 2012.)