Subaru’s lineup is one of the more focused among major automakers, and also among the most beloved, which is why it’s always been a little curious why its cars haven’t always been well-made.
The definition of “well-made” has always been somewhat in dispute, with automakers usually claiming one thing and consumers and others claiming another. In Subaru’s case, the company has received mixed signals, ranking high in Consumer Reports, but consistently near the bottom in J.D. Power rankings.
In itself that’s not so surprising—methodologies can differ, and “reliability” is a notoriously hard to thing to accurately test—but these metrics matter to Subaru, and so does one that is very easy to track: a recent rise in recalls.
Here’s a bit out of a deep dive from Automotive News, which you should read in full:
But in J.D. Power’s IQS report card, Subaru has consistently struggled. In 2018, it ranked fourth from the bottom in the industry, with 115 problems per 100 vehicles.
Subaru’s internal report said it wanted to “break out of the bottom” and improve to 101 problems in 2019, then move up to “middle ranking,” with 90 problems in 2020. But in the 2019 results, released last week, it finished seventh from the bottom, with 113 problems.
Back when Kia’s output was, uh, less than stellar, and its reputation accordingly bad, it, too, began taking J.D. Power seriously, making its subsequent rise in the rankings hardly an accident, which is just to say that J.D. Power matters to automakers, even if you might think of it as a punchline.
And then there is the real money cost, with Subaru spending $2.7 billion on warranties, recalls, and other fixes to its cars over five years ending in March, according to Automotive News.
Of course there’s plenty of blame to go around.
A problem with opening the rear gate of the Forester was found during the July 2018 start of production in Japan, but as of April 1, Subaru had still not implemented a countermeasure.
In another case, a fuel injector leak was discovered by Subaru’s internal quality monitoring team in March 2017. But a fix was introduced only in December 2018.
In supplier-involved recalls and service campaigns, the root cause was traced to development and design 60 percent of the time, the company’s report said. That has triggered a push to reinforce quality improvement efforts upstream of development.
The June 5 report painted a mixed picture of Subaru’s local supply chain. In each month of the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2019, suppliers missed Subaru’s target average defective part rate. The target, measured in parts per million is 6 ppm or less. In four of the months, the average stood at 20 ppm or higher.
A lot of these problems are simply the result of a company that has grown steadily for over a decade now, and keeps growing. U.S. sales haven’t stopped rising since the aughts, and that means more cars, which means more workers to build those cars, and more suppliers to supply parts for the cars, all of which present their own new hurdles.
But it also means that Subaru’s hot streak probably won’t last forever. And it’s one thing for a company to place its bets on sedans and wagons in an increasingly sedan- and wagon-unfriendly world, but it’s another thing if those sedans and wagons also develop a reputation for being shoddily constructed.
Subaru’s next test is a big one, the sixth-generation Outback. And while so far Subaru hasn’t suffered much over quality, any big new problems with one of its signature cars might change that.