By Tim Higgins
Tesla Inc. vehicles scored the worst among major auto makers in a closely watched survey of customers by researcher J.D. Power.
Tesla vehicles, in their first time appearing in the survey, were found to have 250 problems per 100 vehicles compared with an industry average this year of 166 problems, according to the annual Initial Quality Study released Wednesday. The second-worst-performing brand, Land Rover -- owned by Tata Motors of India -- had 228 problems per 100 vehicles, the car-rating company said.
J.D. Power asks vehicle buyers about their experience during the first 90 days of owning a newly purchased car or truck. The Silicon Valley electric-car maker avoided past scrutiny by the 34-year-old survey because of a quirk in some state laws that require an auto maker's permission to use new-vehicle registration data to contact customers. Tesla hasn't provided that permission, according to J.D. Power.
Because of the success of Tesla's Model 3 compact car that Is part of Chief Executive Elon Musk's effort to bring electric vehicles to the masses, J.D. Power says it was finally able to collect enough sales data from 35 states that do allow access to shed light on customers' experience. Because J.D. Power was unable to get registration data from all states, including California -- Tesla's largest U.S. market -- it didn't formally rank the brand at the bottom of its league table.
Tesla has previously brushed aside complaints about quality by pointing to its own internal data and has said it takes customer feedback seriously and is quick to address issues. Still, several customers have aired their grievances on social media, some in hopes that Mr. Musk -- a heavy user of Twitter -- will personally come to their assistance.
Issues Tesla customers raised in the survey include concerns with the accuracy of its body panels, vehicle rattles, wind noise and paint quality, Doug Betts, J.D. Power automotive division president, said in an interview. Tesla did better than competitors with the performance of its touch screen dashboard, he said.
"What we call the blocking and tackling of building the car, that's what Tesla is not good at according to this data," Mr. Betts said.
The J.D. Power results come as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said on its website that it has opened an investigation into the Model S after receiving 11 complaints about failures in the touch screens of the large sedan built from 2013 through 2015. There are about 63,000 of those vehicles in the U.S., according to the regulator. The failures include a loss of rear-camera image display when in reverse gear and troubles with climate control. The regulator said the touch-screen issue hasn't affected the vehicle's control system.
Tesla quality issues have drawn outside criticism before, including problems with the door handle to the air suspension on the Model S luxury sedan and falcon-wing doors and the center display screen on the Model X sport-utility vehicle.
The quality questions raised in the new survey come as Mr. Musk seeks to boost the company's deliveries to millions of vehicles a year from about 368,000 last year.
The global coronavirus pandemic and threat of a prolonged recession could hold back growth plans. Tesla is expected to report second-quarter delivery results late next week, giving a look into the extent of damage that has come from quarantines and Tesla's lone U.S. assembly plant being closed for several weeks. Recent registration data show Tesla deliveries in key markets plunged in the past two months.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Dodge and Kia Motors Corp.'s namesake brand tied for having the fewest problems in the 2020 model year, according to the J.D. Power survey, which covered vehicles acquired between November and February. Customers reported 136 problems per 100 vehicles for those two brands.
The results marked the sixth consecutive year that South Korea's Kia was the highest-ranked mass-market brand. A year ago, Kia was ranked No. 2 overall while Dodge ranked No. 8. Hyundai Motor Co.'s Genesis brand, No. 1 last year, fell behind those two brands and General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet and Chrysler's Ram brands, which also tied. Genesis still ranked as the top so-called premium brand.
Tesla, for its part, has been able to recover from prior setbacks in quality rating. Influential product reviewer Consumer Reports in early 2019 stripped the Model 3 of the coveted "recommended" label after owners reported problems with loose body trim and glass defects -- issues that the magazine suggested could be linked to an increase in output. Several months later, Consumer Reports said improvements in reliability of the Model 3 allowed it to again recommend the car.