Musings on the State of Automotive Quality


I’ve been talking to lots of folks lately about the meaning of automotive quality, how ‘Ze Germans’ stack up, if they remain a benchmark, and how everyone else is doing across the industry. I decided to put together some thoughts on build and materials quality, interior design language and overall perceived quality, across the manufacturers I know well from having spent a ton on over the past [redacted to protect the old] years. Nothing about performance or driving characteristics here (maybe a topic for another day). Of course this is all just my opinion, which means it’s probably correct (let’s be honest), but your mileage may vary (no pun).

Audi

Audi, in my opinion, has come the farthest over the past 35 years or so. Perceived quality is extremely strong, as is materials and build quality. Design language is very consistent both inside and out, and everything is pleasing to the eye. Really impressive interiors, and no nonsense exteriors. The industry has closed the gap a bit, but Audi remains very strong. Where they come up short is in what I call the “family step function”. This is where their consistency becomes a bit of a double edged sword, as they have by far the narrowest gap from entry level through peak. The Audi you spend $40k on looks awfully close to the Audi you spend $140k on in every way, inside and out. Whether this is good or bad depends on what you’re spending. Ultimately, to my eye, the $40k punches above its weight, but the $140k falls short.

BMW

BMW has had the least evolution over the years. Some might even say they’ve stagnated, or possibly even regressed (yikes!). Exterior styling cycles through periods of being extremely polarizing and extremely pleasing, while interiors have stayed generally bland, if functional. Materials and build quality, as well as overall perceived quality, are solid, but fall short of Audi in most cases. The family step function here is interesting, with the entry level being quite spartan, and well below Audi, but the peak models showing up stronger than Audis offerings.

Mercedes

Benz has fully reinvented itself a few times, but recent trajectory is solid. All of the qualitative metrics for a new Mercedes are highly tier dependent, ranging from fairly poor to truly exceptional. Unsurprisingly, the family step function here is the most uneven of the bunch and you really need to evaluate each class independently. As an example, the S class is really best of breed, far above Audi or BMW, and the highest quality vehicle you can buy without jumping to the level of a Bentley or beyond. The CLA, on the other hand, falls well short of even the BMW 2 series and almost feels like a different manufacturer. The bread and butter C and E classes fall somewhere in the middle, but closer to the CLA in my opinion, and are similar to each other with what I think is the right amount of progression between them.

Here is how I’d rank them against each other by tier:

  • Entry Level (A3, 228i, CLA250): Audi>>>>BMW>Benz
  • Entry Level+ (A4,/5 3/430i, C300): Audi>Benz>BMW
  • Upper Level- (A6/7, 530i, E350): Benz>Audi=BMW
  • Upper Level (A8, 740i, S500): Benz>>>>BMW>>Audi

So what does this mean for everyone else? Well I have less first hand experience, but in general:

Porsche

Consistently superior to everything short of an S Class, but the difference between base model and optioned model is ridiculous, both in terms of how lovely the materials quality can really get, and the sticker shock you suffer in looking at the quote. As one example, a Taycan Turbo S is a Tesla Model S Performance made by a real car company, but it’s also as much as a house in North Carolina (~$230k)

Land Rover

Land Rover is a strange mixed bag where everything looks fantastic, generally feels great, and is pleasant, but the perceived quality starts to fall off quickly after any amount of regular use. This is also uneven across the line. A $150k Range Rover holds up a ton better than a $50k Evoque, as it should, but it’s still jarring.

Genesis

Increasingly impressive impersonation of upper level German quality and an absolutely incredible bargain. If you look close you can spot the differences, but the vast majority of buyers will be thrilled.

Lexus

Such a tough one. In many ways well above and beyond any of the German marques, particularly in terms of build quality, but the design language and interior aesthetic can be so polarizing. Personally I can’t do it (except maybe the LC500), but for anyone who looks and likes there is no downside.

Anything American

Remains an overall “meh” across the board for me. The best American cars in the biz, Cadillac and Corvette, still fall well short in all of the qualitative categories and Tesla remains in its own odd category. Long story short, you buy American cars despite these dimensions, not because of.

Anything Japanese

I only have experience with the R35 Nissan GTR, Mitsubishi EVO X and the NA2 Acura NSX (POWER FLEX!!!), so I’m not sure I’m well qualified to weigh in on the general case. For the GTR and the NSX, these have always truly been “budget supercars” in every sense of that term. They hang with a 911 in every objective measure, nearly every subjective driving measure (which is amazing – the 911 is a benchmarks benchmark), and almost no qualitative measures (other than build quality where they both excel).

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