CANTON, MS – Leaky sunroofs. Squeaks and rattles.

These are a few of the complaints from buyers of Nissan vehicles built in Canton, MS.

Nissan North America Inc. opened its second U.S. manufacturing plant here in May 2003, launching production of the Quest minivan.

Eleven months later, J.D. Power & Associates released the results of its closely watched annual Initial Quality Study, reflecting the quality of ’03 model year cars, and Nissan performed abysmally.

Most of the complaints centered on Canton-built products: the Quest, as well as the Titan fullsize pickup truck and Armada fullsize SUV.

Nissan’s score of 154 problems per 100 vehicles was well below the industry average for ’03 models of 119 PP 100 vehicles and even below Hyundai Motor America, once a laughing stock in vehicle quality.

The results were a black eye for Nissan in the midst of a revival in the U.S. market, thanks to its expansion into new segments and cutting-edge vehicle styling.

“A defect is like a dead body; it’s a tragedy. It should never happen,” Doug Betts, senior vice president-total customer satisfaction, says at a media event here of the woes that befell the auto maker.

Knowing it had to act fast, Nissan began implementing quality initiatives.

Betts on April 1 assumed his new position, which includes making sure customers are satisfied at each step of the vehicle buying process and with all aspects of vehicle ownership.

He says while warranty information is a more accurate reflection of vehicle quality, third-party data from J.D. Power, as well as Consumer Reports magazine, whose data Betts compares to “a comet with a long tail” because it is historic in nature, is helpful in certain instances.

“Warranty (data) is the most important indicator (of vehicle quality),” he says. “It’s 100% sample size, it directly reflects a customer having to go back to the dealer, which is not something people want to do.”

He says Nissan saw a 73% reduction in warranty claims for the Quest minivan from November 2004 to November 2005. Overall, warranty claims were down 83% for the Canton-built models in the same period.

However, Betts concedes, “There’s an aspect of quality and satisfaction you can’t get from warranty. If you take the ’04 Quest, a lot of customers didn’t like that the gauges were in the middle of the cockpit module. Now they were there when they bought it, so I can argue with them, ‘Why do you not like it now?’ But as time (went) by, they decided that they didn’t like that, and that’s reflected in the survey. That can never be reflected in warranty (data).”

Nissan last May implemented customer satisfaction teams, bringing together such disparate areas as design and manufacturing to get to the root of customers’ displeasures, be they actual or perceived.

There are 13 teams, with 11 or 12 members, including a leader and a “pilot.” The teams specialize in areas such as brakes, ride/handling/steering, wind noise, closures and squeaks and rattles.

Nissan recently added a 14th team, dubbed the “quick implementation team,” whose job is to implement the solutions the customer satisfaction teams come up with as fast as possible.

“These guys are really good at understanding problems that fall into their particular area; that’s why they were selected,” Betts says, adding there are purchasing and logistics people on the quick implementation team with the resources to pay suppliers and re-order parts. “Their expertise is to expedite things,” he says.

Betts estimates with the customer satisfaction team approach Nissan has taken, the auto maker’s rate of fixing a problem is much higher, saying it can take as little as 60 seconds to devise a solution to a quality issue vs. two to three months of “missed e-mails.”

Nissan says the main customer complaint with the Canton-built vehicles has been squeaks and rattles, which can be difficult to find because some develop over time, and not during testing in the plant.

Betts says the squeak-and-rattle team devised a “shake and bake” test that subjects a vehicle to a year’s worth of temperature changes and vibration over the course of a week, accelerating the aging process in an attempt to uncover pesky noises.

Nissan also is working more closely with suppliers to try to catch quality issues before a vehicle is delivered to a customer.

“We did some benchmarking and found that within North America we were not as actively involved with our suppliers as we should be, and we are in the process of rectifying that,” Betts says, adding Nissan can’t let the responsibility for the quality of its vehicles flow outside the company.

Nissan is phasing in what it calls “parts quality engineering” or PQE with the launch of the ’07 Altima sedan this fall.

Engineers have been appointed advocates for particular suppliers. They also are the project managers, so they can keep the supplier on track should it fall behind schedule, Betts says.

With PQE, Nissan is closely inspecting the quality of parts during production trials of the new Altima. “If I see a little something here on 30 vehicles,” Betts says, it will translate into a much larger problem when the plant ramps up to 2,000 units a day.

Project metric results, showing how well prepared suppliers are for the launch of the ’07 Altima, are vastly improved from when the current-generation Altima launched in 2002, he says.

Nissan is being proactive, trying to anticipate possible quality issues before they develop by examining every step of the vehicle production process.

Canton is piloting the program, which includes developing a 23-step “Built In Quality” evaluation to examine what Nissan can do to prevent defects in the first place.

A fix may be as simple as a worker changing which hand carries his wrench when he walks around the front of a vehicle, so as not to scratch it, Betts says.

On the subject of scratching, Dan Gaudette, senior vice president-manufacturing, says reports of Canton employees damaging paint finish by wearing belts and jewelry are untrue.

“It didn’t happen,” Gaudette says. “Damage of vehicles is caused by various things: parts, guns, people bumping into vehicles and so forth. We’ve always maintained no belts, no jewelry.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com