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Chrysler and Fiat reliability – Merger of equals?

Consumer Reports News: May 05, 2009 04:00 PM

As Chrysler goes through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, the troubled U.S. automaker is working on recreating itself through a partnership with Fiat. (Read: “Chrysler enters bankruptcy, merges with Fiat.”) There is much synergy promised from this relationship, such as shared technology and manufacturing capacity, though there are many unknowns—including quality and reliability.

Chrysler reliability
Chrysler Corp. brands rated poorly in the Consumer Reports 2008 Car Reliability Survey, based on our subscribers' experiences with 1.4 million vehicles. Respondents reported on any serious problems they had with their vehicles in 17 trouble spots during the previous 12 months, which allows us to provide predicted-reliability Ratings for new cars. Among the 34 brands ranked for 2009, Jeep is 28th, Dodge 30th, and Chrysler 32nd. (Land Rover takes the bottom spot by a significant margin.)

Clearly, reliability is a challenge for Chrysler. In fact, it is a key factor in why Consumer Reports does not recommend a single vehicle from its three brands, along with often-mediocre test scores. (Read "Detroit report cards.") That said, Chrysler has stated that it is making a concerted effort to improve its vehicle quality and its internal auditing shows marked gains. If these changes are successful it will be reflected in our survey findings, but will take several years to assess its effectiveness and allow vehicle recommendations. We hope the promised improvements come to fruition, for both consumers’ benefit and company health.

Now, the real question is, how will working with Fiat affect quality?

Fiat reliability
For those Americans who recall when Fiat cars were sold here, the brand made a less-than-stellar impression. Looking back at Consumer Reports reliability ratings from the late 1970s, Fiat models typically had more dreaded solid black blobs than most car shoppers would prefer. In particular, the Fiat 128 and 131 received a worse overall reliability rating for several years. Back then, Fiat was sometimes referred to as “Fix It Again, Tony.”

A lot can happen in 30 years, but don’t get your hopes up.

For insights, I turned to the 2008 Brand Reliability Index from Which? Car. The annual Which? Car survey is the largest survey of its kind in the U.K., and it is conducted by a publication that, like Consumer Reports, does not accept advertising and delivers the straight facts from its findings. Its methods differ from Consumer Reports’, and cars can be different from the ones sold here. Still, the results are nonetheless illuminating.

For its reliability study, Which? Car looks at models up to eight years old, thereby often reporting on years of experience with a given vehicle. Their survey tallies serious breakdowns, unscheduled repairs, and minor problems.

When the brands are ranked, Which? Car finds Honda and Toyota at the top of the 2008 reliability list, followed closely by Daihatsu, Lexus, Mazda, and Subaru. This largely mirrors the latest CR predicted reliability ranking, though there Scion was at the top and Mazda placed 12th with CR due to a different model line-up. (CR online subscribers, see how brands compare.)

Among the 38 brands featured in Which? Car, Fiat ranked 35th, followed by Renault, Land Rover, and Chrysler/Dodge.  Jeep is the highest-rated brand from Chrysler, with its 29th place just barely keeping it in the “Poor” category. Fiat, Chrysler, and Dodge are categorized as “Very poor.” In total, Fiat, Chrysler, and Dodge provide similar reliability, and it isn’t good.

There is risk in assessing how a brand performs in one part of the world, versus another, given product line variance, equipment differences, and usage patterns. Point of assembly could also be a factor. That said, the results from the Which? Car survey are illuminating.

Bottom line
When Daimler-Benz bought Chrysler in 1997, it was billed as “merger of equals.” The Chrysler and Fiat deal seems to fit that description better. By the limited indication we have, it looks like reliability may be a challenge. Even in the best of times, it would be difficult for these newly joined companies. Further challenges include factory closings, assembly line changes, and corporate language and cultural differences. We will know for sure only when the products from the new, joint company hit the streets, and our subscribers report on their experience.

We will continue to monitor this fast-moving story, reporting here in the Cars blog and also updating advice and news on the Auto Crisis hub.

Jeff Bartlett

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