Avoiding bugs in new models and redesigns

Eager to scoop up a brand-new, never-been-seen-before car model? Or how about the sleek, new redesign of a tried-and-true favorite? You may want to wait.

A new study by J.D. Power and Associates found that a number of cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles redesigned for 2002 have more problems than the 2001 models they replaced.

The new and supposedly improved Nissan Altima, Honda CRV, four-door Ford Explorer, Lexus ES 300 and Toyota Camry all did worse than their predecessors in an initial quality study, which tracks problems in a vehicle's first 90 days of ownership.

"There's some cache in having the newest and the greatest. But along with that benefit there's the risk of working the kinks out of a car," says John Nielsen, director of AAA's Approved Auto Repair Network.

"The good news is it's in warranty, so you don't have to pay for it."

Glitches after all these years
More problems cropping up in a car's first model year has been an auto industry certainty for decades. And while overall auto quality has improved immensely, first-model-year glitches remain.

Auto models that were redesigned for 2002 declined in initial quality by 2 percent, according to J.D. Power.

Two percent of trouble doesn't seem like a lot until you consider just how much better a vehicle is likely to be in its second model year, when its quality shoots up by 17 percent.

Why the big jump in quality? All the little kinks and problems that come to light in the first model year get fixed.

You'll get a higher quality vehicle when you wait for a hot, new design to enter its second model year. Being a patient car shopper can really pay off.

"Look for a model that has relatively few problems in the first year and buy it in the second year," says Clarence Ditlow, auto author and executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

Ditlow has been urging buyers to steer clear of first-year car models since 1970, when the first lemon book was published.

"There's never adequate testing to get rid of all the bugs," Ditlow says.

This is especially true of brand-new, never-been-seen-before models.

"It just takes a little while longer to get things running smoothly," says Brian Walters, director of product research at J.D. Powers.

"Many times there are brand-new factories, totally new suppliers. They're starting from scratch for the most part."

And even though computer-assisted design has improved new-car quality in recent years, some problems don't come to light until the cars are driven off a dealer lot.

Consumer guinea pigs
"The first people who buy the car end up being guinea pigs," says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

"Sometimes it's just fit and finish and minor details and it's not that big of a deal. But if it's 'Does it start? Does it stop?' then it's a serious problem."

Just look at the PT Cruiser. DaimlerChrysler is recalling more than 460,000 PT Cruisers -- every one built for the vehicle's first two model years -- because of fuel-pump leaks.

Why don't auto manufacturers delay the launch of a new model until every glitch is ironed out? They're driven by money, just like every other business, and hot, new designs tend to be big sellers, bugs and all.

"A brand-new design tends to have more appeal than an older design," Walters says. "Dealers tend to make more profits on vehicles with high appeal. Manufacturers have to spend less money on incentives on vehicles with high appeal."

If you can put up with a few kinks in your dream car, go ahead and snap up a hot new design as soon as it comes out.

If you're looking for the highest quality, most hassle free ride, hold off on your shopping for a year or so.

"If no trouble whatsoever is the most important thing to you, you're much better off in the second or third year," Nielsen says.

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