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In-car electronics causing “reliability plague”

Infiniti Q50 infotainment
Two-screen Infiniti Q50 infotainment system

REMEMBER the joke turned urban myth about the comment by Microsoft boss Bill Gates comparing the rate of computer evolution against that of the car and the response of General Motors referring to the fact computers randomly crash and other such analogies?

The origins of this joke date back to the late 1990s but here in 2014 the lines of computer and car have thoroughly blurred and guess what? In-car infotainment systems have been labelled as a “growing reliability plague” by Consumer Reports in its latest car dependability survey report.

In the United States based survey of people who bought a new car in its first year on the market, in-car electronics generated more complaints than any other category.

Despite the US bias of the report, it provides prospective Australian new car buyers – and the workshops that will one day maintain their cars – with some useful insights as it covers several brands and models sold Down Under.

For example, with sales of Fiat-Chrysler products growing massively in Australia, repairers can look forward to lots of work in coming years as four of the conglomerate’s five mainstream brands were at the bottom of the 28-brand Consumer Reports reliability table.

Chrysler took 22nd place (between Chevrolet and Ford) while the very lowest reaches were dedicated to Dodge (25th), Ram (26th), Jeep (27th) and Fiat (28th).

Nobody really expects trouble-free motoring from an Italian car but the “I bought a Jeep” advertising slogan could soon take on a whole new meaning following that result.

The Infiniti Q50 sedan that hit Australian showrooms in February was the worst infotainment glitch offender, with more than one in five owners surveyed having complaints in this area.

Other brands sold in Australia and with models suffering “significant problem rates from infotainment bugs and glitches” in the Consumer Reports survey comprised Fiat, Ford, Honda, Infiniti and Jeep.

This isn’t the first time a Consumer Reports survey has revealed such complaints, with unresponsive touch screens and problems pairing phones using Bluetooth having frustrated car owners in the past.

As an indicator of the increasing take-up of this type of tech, even more problems arose in this year’s survey, such as malfunctioning multi-use controllers.

Consumer Reports automotive testing director Jake Fisher made a link between dodgy infotainment systems and deeper reliability issues.

“A close look at the results suggests that cars with a lot of in-car electronic issues usually have plenty of other troubles, too,” he said.

The good news for customers and workshops alike is that manufacturers seem to be addressing the problem, with the magic of the software update probably at the heart of this.

Consumer Reports says complaints about the Ford Explorer’s infotainment system got as high as 28 per cent in previous years but in 2014 it achieved a respectable three per cent complaint rate.

A glitchy HondaLink system in the Accord V6 last year led to Consumer Reports refusing to recommend the model a but technology update has reversed this decision for the current model.

It would seem the Consumer Reports survey swerves recalls as Lexus and Toyota were respectively ranked first and second overall.

Interestingly a poor show by the Scion FR-S sportscar (sold in Australia as the Toyota 86) dragged down Toyota’s North American youth-oriented brand to eighth – and it did similarly badly in Subaru-badged BRZ guise.

Upholding the Japanese reputation for reliability were Mazda and Honda completing the top four, followed by German brand Audi in fifth, in contrast to the 17th place occupied by parent company Volkswagen.

Perhaps the French influence of the Renault-Nissan Alliance damaged the other major Japanese brand in the rankings, Nissan taking a below-average 16th place overall, having climbed six places compared with last year.

Nissan’s luxury arm Infiniti was the only Japanese brand with a diminishing reliability score, plummeting 14 places to 20th position, no doubt weighed down by the Q50’s electronics problems.

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