Consumer Reports: High-tech Models Have ‘Growing Pains’

The Tesla Model 3

Exhibiting the power of Elon Musk, Consumer Reports led off its coverage of its own Annual Auto Reliability Study by predicting the reliability of the Tesla Model 3, a vehicle that isn’t on the market yet. Citing the fact that the Model 3 is “the least complicated Tesla yet,” according to CR’s auto test director Jake Fisher, the organization predicted that it would turn in an “average” reliability score. But CR admitted that it didn’t have data from actual Tesla Model 3 owners.

Fisher noted, ““Electric vehicles are inherently less complicated than gasoline or hybrid alternatives.  The Model 3… should benefit from what Tesla has learned from the Model S.”

When it comes to mainstream cars, CR’s data indicated that the old idea of avoiding a vehicle that is brand-new might still be a good plan.  The survey of 640,000 vehicles said “growing pains” for new models was a common trend for many manufacturers, and the pain points were often the newest, high-technology equipment.

“All-new or updated models are now more likely than older ones to have a wonky engine, a jerky transmission, or high-tech features that fail outright,” CR said.

Among the problem areas CR cited were new, sophisticated eight-speed, nine-speed and continuously variable transmissions (CVTs.) While the new transmissions offer improved fuel economy, many owners have reported issues with them breaking down or shifting awkwardly. Infotainment systems were another frequently noted trouble spot in new or newly redesigned models, not because they don’t work but because owners don’t understand how to use all their functions. CR’s survey showed that owners of first-year models had twice as many complaints about in-car electronics as owners of carryover models.

“These new technologies can add features and improve fuel efficiency, but are more prone to have issues,” Fisher said. “More often than not, our data suggests it’s prudent for consumers to wait for the technology to mature.”

That’s bad news for car manufacturers who are hoping to lure customers with new models and advanced technologies. In an effort to stem the tide of complaints many automakers now come up with remarkably quick fixes to apparent problems.

CR’s cited the Hyundai Tucson SUV as a case in point.  The 2016 version scored poorly with owners due to transmission issues, but in the most recent survey complaints about 2017 Tucson transmission dropped by more than half. Similarly, the in-car electronics of the 2017 Honda Civic are so improved the complaint rate was only a third of that for the 2016 version.

Speaking of new technology, Teslas are obviously filled with it, but that doesn’t prevent Consumer Reports from making the bold prediction that the carryover Tesla Model S will earn an “Above Average” rating by owners for the first time. It will be interesting to see how the Model 3 fares when actual owner data starts coming in, but that will have to wait until sufficient numbers are in consumer hands.