Infotainment fixes are key to Ford quality surge

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Ford began to use Blackberry's technology in 2015 for its third-generation Sync 3 infotainment system. Judging from the 2019 J.D. Power study released this week, Ford has solved its previous infotainment problems.

Ford Motor Co. seems to have found an answer to the infotainment system problems that plagued the automaker's quality ratings back just six years ago. And it's made changes throughout the company to boost its new vehicles.

As recently as 2013, the automaker's MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems — which were essentially the second-generation of its Sync technology — gave drivers plenty to gripe about. The system was reportedly buggy. It crashed frequently and didn't respond quickly to touch commands. And it was largely the reason the Ford brand ranked near the bottom of J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study in 2012 and 2013, at 27th place overall.

But in 2015 the automaker began to use Blackberry's technology for its third-generation Sync 3 infotainment system. And judging from the 2019 J.D. Power study released this week, Ford has solved its infotainment problems.

The automaker's Ford and Lincoln brands ranked fourth and fifth in initial quality behind only Genesis, Kia and Hyundai. That's a one-spot improvement for the Ford brand, and a two-spot improvement for Lincoln from the previous year. Drivers of both brands reported slightly more problems per 100 vehicles than they had the year prior due largely to new driver-assist features, but Ford brands outpaced competitors.

That's not a fluke, according to Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of automotive.

"We weren't satisfied with where we were after the '12 and '13 model years," Hinrichs said. "We really set a goal to be the best."

The automaker changed meeting and product development processes, focused on improving new vehicle launches, and added quality engineers throughout its product development process to ensure Ford vehicles were consistent and well-made.

Ford has shown a marked improvement, according to Karl Brauer, industry analyst with with Kelley Blue Book, though it's clear the improvement for Ford comes from the one area its vehicles lagged for a few years.

"The range of problems with new cars has gotten much narrower," Brauer said. "The Sync interface was frustrating, and that by itself pulled scores down. If you just had a few tweaks, you can kind of fix things.

He said the J.D. Power rankings help automakers "find what areas they should zoom in on, because that's now enough to tank a rating. And that means consumers win."

For the 2019 study, Ford and Lincoln owners reported 83 and 84 problems per 100 vehicles, respectively. Genesis, the top-ranked automaker, reported 63. Jaguar, the lowest-ranked, reported 130. The industry average was 93. 

Most owners for most brands reported fewer issues with infotainment systems, J.D. Power reported, though it was still the "most problematic" category for new vehicle owners. Analysts have said that new technology will continue to be the biggest hiccup for automakers as drivers transition out of older vehicles and shop the new market.

Hinrichs said Ford aims to further improve its initial quality. The automaker plans to launch a slew of new vehicles over the next year and a half; Ford's launch quality needs to be consistent.

"We want to stay at this level and keep working on being number one," he said. "The launch of new vehicles is the critical focal point. We have a number of very important launches this year. It's very important that our launch quality propel us to the next level."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau