Whipping Boy No More

Chrysler expects dramatic improvements in launch quality and corresponding reductions in warranty claims, based on early results of a new production-vehicle testing protocol. Chrysler has partnered with Roush to conduct extensive, standardized on-road testing of first-run vehicles, reveals Doug Betts, senior vice-president quality. The testing, adapted from a methodology employed by alliance-partner

Chrysler expects dramatic improvements in launch quality and corresponding reductions in warranty claims, based on early results of a new “real-world” production-vehicle testing protocol.

Chrysler has partnered with Roush to conduct extensive, standardized on-road testing of first-run vehicles, reveals Doug Betts, senior vice-president quality. The testing, adapted from a methodology employed by alliance-partner Fiat, is being done at five U.S. locations.

The redesigned-for-'11 Jeep Grand Cherokee midsize SUV was the first vehicle subjected to the testing. Betts says Chrysler recorded an 85% reduction in warranty claims, compared with the average number of claims in three recent launches that served as a control group.

Those launches: the Dodge Journey cross/utility vehicle; Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans; and the Ram fullsize pickup.

More importantly, lessons learned from the new Jeep's launch are benefiting the launch of vehicles such as new-for-'11 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 fullsize sedans.

“We're seeing that the cars that followed the Grand Cherokee are doing better on this testing than the Grand Cherokee did,” Betts says, adding Chrysler expects the effectiveness of its new testing round to multiply in coming years.

The initiative comes as Chrysler gamely tries to improve its image in the marketplace. The auto maker long has been the industry's whipping boy for third-party quality watchdogs such as Consumer Reports magazine.

“One of the diseases of the old company was the focus on cost-reduction and not things you could do to maybe invest and save money later,” Betts tells Ward's in an interview in Auburn Hills, MI, the location of one of five Roush-run testing sites where convoys of new Chrysler vehicles are put through their paces.

Some 600 drivers trace various routes, stopping frequently to perform functions from slamming doors to pairing cellular phones. When the ordeal is over, each vehicle will have 36,000 miles (58,000 km) on its odometer.

Betts declines to say how much Roush is charging Chrysler, but he concedes the testing represents an additional cost. Still, it's “pennies on the hundred-dollar bill in terms of the return.”

Tony Brenders, Chrysler's head of engineering quality, says the value was evident when a fluid leak was discovered after Grand Cherokee testing began.

“When the supplier had gone from their prototype-build process to their production-build process, they didn't include any measure to prevent them from cutting the seal as they stuck the half-shaft into the differential,” he says.

The cut was undetectable, until drivers put about 10,000 miles (16,000 km) of wear on the seal.

Further investigation revealed “it was epidemic in our fleet,” Brenders says.

Without the added testing, Chrysler might have produced defective vehicles for some 12 months — the time required for customers to accumulate 10,000 miles. That's about 195,000 units, according to Ward's data.

“But before we ever built a customer car, we resolved it,” Brenders says.

Betts adds: “There's a huge advantage to have possession of the car, the person who's driving it knows they're driving it to try to find problems. The customer is just driving down the road.”

The protocol now is integrated in Chrysler's operations. Even MOPAR parts undergo testing.

One unforeseen challenge is turnover. A driver and passenger are assigned to each vehicle and the latter is tasked with confirming the operation of myriad controls, such as DVD operation.

This exercise was inspired by the new infotainment system that launched in the radically upgraded '11 Journey. And it is onerous, Brenders says.

Testers would “rather drive than be the passenger.”

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