Ram's next hurdle: Holding on to quality

Industry

DETROIT — After Fiat Chrysler Automobiles turned Ram from a below-average performer on the 2019 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study into No. 3 this year, staying near the top will be a challenge as well.

Although the study came out just last month, it was based on a truck lineup produced in the simpler times before COVID-19 struck — before face masks, thermal screenings and social distancing retuned factory life. Now, FCA aims to maintain its quality gains for Ram and other brands while also worrying about keeping workers safe.

Mark Champine, FCA’s head of quality for North America, said the company needed to make sure it had proper spacing and barriers between equipment operators without compromising their ability to do their jobs.

“Every single station, every single process was reviewed to verify that they would meet the requirements from a safety perspective and we would have no negative effect on quality,” said Champine, who visited several facilities before U.S. production resumed in May. “We’d even canvass the employees if they had a concern, or they felt that they weren’t able to do their job sufficiently to ensure quality, to make sure to notify the right people and that we would pay additional attention to that.”

The quality race is of utmost importance for all brands, but falling behind in the relentlessly competitive pickup segment, in particular, can wreck a truck’s prospects. Ram has managed to stay in the game even as it rolls out fresh products with new technologies for driver assistance and infotainment, factors that have been known to ding automakers in the quality study.

FCA, for instance, introduced a 12-inch touch screen to its 2019 pickup line to improve an infotainment system that already was highly rated. This layout carried into the 2020 pickups, which were tested for the latest J.D. Power study, and helped the brand make an unusually big jump — it ranked 21st last year — considering how early it was in the trucks’ life cycle.

“I think there’s always some concern when bringing this level of technology into the vehicle, could it potentially have a longer impact or consequential damage that you don’t want?” Mike Koval Jr., head of Ram in North America, told Automotive News. “But that’s the calculated risk we took, and I think, by all accounts, we have been successful in delivering a world-class product that’s resonating in the marketplace.”

Ram is benefiting from having top-notch rivals in the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado. The trucks all have a similar level of quality these days, said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power.

Sargent said Ram is average in areas such as the powertrain and exterior, but it shines with “big advantages in infotainment, interior and driving assistance.”

“I think part of what helps Ram is that the pickup market is so competitive that you can’t have a bad pickup — otherwise, you’re out of business,” Sargent said. “All pickups perform well in the study because you kind of have to.”

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