Chrysler LLC's manufacturing chief says the company is working with great energy and speed to fix its quality problems, but the payoff hasn't shown up yet in external quality studies.
Frank Ewasyshyn, executive vice president of manufacturing, said Monday that many problems reported in such studies have to do with perceived quality issues, such as ride and handling, or interiors with too many hard surfaces. In each case, the company is working hard to fix the problems, he said.
The number of actual mechanical problems has dropped and is much lower than it has been in the past, he said.
"We're getting better," Ewasyshyn said in an interview Monday at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars, a weeklong auto industry conference in Traverse City. "We've got work to do, there's no question about that."
In JD Power and Associates' annual survey of people who have owned cars for three years, all three Chrysler brands - Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep - ranked worse than the industry average in problems reported per 100 vehicles.
Vehicle owners reported 229 problems per 100 Chrysler vehicles, 230 for Dodge and 253 for Jeep, compared with the industry average of 206.
Ewasyshyn said Chrysler's improvements are showing up in reduced warranty costs, which are down 29% in the past year. But they haven't yet surfaced in the external studies, he said.
"The things that break are much better than they've ever been," he said.
To deal with quality, Chrysler's new management has set up teams of engineers, quality experts and other workers to come up with solutions to vehicle problems that are reported to dealerships.
Also, the company has employee boards in factories that are encouraged to report problems and develop solutions, he said.
Those should take care of any lingering nuts-and-bolts problems, further paring warranty costs, Ewasyshyn said.
"In the meantime the rest of the organization is focused on improving the things that are customer dissatisfiers, or again, perceived quality," he said.
Ewasyshyn, who has been with Chrysler since 1976, said Vice Chairman Tom LaSorda began a quest for better quality when he came to the company in 2000 from General Motors.
But Ewasyshyn is at a loss as to why Chrysler still lags behind most other carmakers in quality.
"If I could answer that question, you wouldn't be asking it," he said. "We certainly put enough energy and effort into it."
LaSorda, Ewasyshyn said, began to standardize manufacturing processes, and unlike in past years, those processes have continued and have been refined. Previous leaders often changed the processes that govern how vehicles are put together, Ewasyshyn said.
"Over the years we were fairly notorious for 'I'm the leader. This is my way. I'm the new leader, this is my way,"' he said.
Chrysler has seen improvement, especially in the JD Power long-term study. Problems per 100 Chrysler-brand vehicles dropped by 20 between the 2007 and 2008 studies, while Dodge's figure dropped by six.
But Jeep saw an additional 34 problems per 100 vehicles, mainly related to check-engine lights coming on, said Neal Oddes, JD Power's director of product research and analysis.
Oddes said the long-term study focuses mainly on defects rather than perceived quality issues such as interiors.
He said Chrysler's brands have shown nearly steady improvement during the past five years, evidence that the company is working to make quality better. But it takes five to 10 years to overcome the perception of low quality, Oddes said.
"They've shown that they can make those dramatic improvements," he said. "There's a lot of room for improvement, and there's no reason to doubt that they wouldn't be able to make that up."
For Ewasyshyn, standardizing the processes, setting up factories that can build multiple vehicles, and improving quality is a daily quest.
"We've got a plan. It works. We're gonna stick to it. And it's constantly being reinforced," Ewasyshyn said.
"We know the right formula. Sticking to it and just constantly pushing it every day of the week, challenging people to do better, that's how we're going to get this thing done once and for all."