||Jaguar, Porsche and Cadillac Gain in Quality; Chrysler, Mercedes, Ford Slip
Lexus Repeats Atop J.D. Power's New-Vehicle Quality Study
Jaguar, Porsche and Cadillac posted the biggest improvements in new-vehicle quality for the 2012 model year, while the Mini, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Ford and Subaru brands fell back in a year that saw overall industry quality advance nearly 5 percent, according to J.D. Power and Associates' 2012 U.S. Initial Quality Study.
Lexus topped J.D. Power's study for the second year in a row with 73 problems reported per 100 models tracked, the same as in 2011. Toyota Motor Corp.'s luxury division was followed by the Jaguar, Porsche, Cadillac, Honda, Acura, Infiniti, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and BMW brands.
It was hard to rise and easy to fall this year as automakers scored the biggest improvement in quality since 2009 and sliced the average number of problems reported per 100 vehicles to 102 from 107 in 2011, Power said.
The Mazda, GMC, Nissan, Ram and Chevrolet brands also finished above the industry average.
Automakers are making higher-quality vehicles than ever before and continue to make gains in all areas except audio, entertainment and navigation systems, where problems increased 8 percent from last year, Power said.
The Fiat brand and Daimler AG's Smart division tied for last place with 151 problems per 100 models, Power said.
Suzuki, Infiniti, Nissan, Ram, Toyota, Dodge, BMW and Jeep also made big gains in the 2012 study, which tracks problems during the first 90 days of ownership.
The 228-question survey was conducted between February and May and is based on 74,000 responses from U.S. consumers that purchased or leased a new light vehicle.
The 2012 Porsche 911 had the fewest problems -- 44 per 100 models tracked -- and the best score since Power redesigned the study in 2006.
"If we did the math, the 911 is probably the best vehicle we've ever seen in the history of the study," said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive operations at Power. "It's that good."
Since 2006, when Power added perceived design flaws to the list of problems it tracks, vehicle owners are reporting almost as many things not right as things broken. This year, features that are difficult to use or confusing account for almost half of all reported problems, said Raffi Festekjian, Power's director of automotive research.
The single biggest problem this year: voice-recognition devices that didn't work properly.
"A few years ago, voice recognition was basically on only high-end vehicles," said Sargent. "Now most vehicles have some type of hands-free operation."
Power said more than 80 percent of consumers surveyed for the 2012 study indicated that their new vehicle had some form of hands-free technology.
Hard to advance
Manufacturers are doing a better job of both reducing defects and introducing advanced technologies into mainstream vehicles, but making it easy to use is challenging, Festekjian said.
"This is now an issue," he said. "The technology draws customers, but they have high expectations and want to be able to use it without reading an owner's manual."
Design complaints and the rising tide of quality gains made it more difficult to move up the list, as Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group and Volkswagen Group of America discovered this year.
The Ford brand, which ranked No. 5 in the 2010 study before plunging last year largely because owners disliked a transmission and found the MyFord Touch infotainment system hard to use, failed to rebound this year.
It was one of the five brands with more problems this year than last and fell four places to No. 27. Lincoln finished tied for No. 18, down a spot from 2011.
Ford said it tweaked the transmission and improved MyFord Touch substantially in March but too late to boost IQS scores this year.
"The dramatic improvement we're expecting will come in the third quarter," Ford quality boss Bennie Fowler told reporters last week.
GM a winner
General Motors was the one Detroit-based winner. The automaker's four U.S. brands reduced problems substantially and finished in the top half of the 34-brand field. No. 4 Cadillac was the top Detroit 3 brand, and Chevrolet joined GMC by placing above industry average.
"This is GM's best performance in the 26-year history of the study," Sargent said. "They've come a long way; they've focused their attention on four brands and a smaller product lineup."
Each of GM's brands earned at least one segment award, including the Chevrolet Malibu, which was ranked highest among mid-sized cars.
GM also took all three top spots in the large pickup segment, with the GMC Sierra light-duty, the Chevy Silverado heavy-duty and the Avalanche finishing first, second and third, respectively.
Both Nissan North America brands slashed problems this year. Infiniti rose two spots to tie for No. 6. Nissan jumped a dozen places to tie for No. 12.
Toyota Motor Sales, which rebounded last year, treaded water in the 2012 study. Lexus was the top brand for a second year even though its problems score remained at 73. The Toyota brand reported fewer problems -- 88 -- but fell a spot to No. 8. Scion also reduced the number of problems to 117 per 100 but dropped a place to No. 26.
The Toyota brand also posted fewer problems than the average of all premium brands -- 91 problems per 100 models.
Corolla's big honor
The 2012 Toyota Corolla was the highest-rated non-premium model and ranked fifth overall, Power said. The redesigned Camry also fared better than the 2011 model.
Chrysler Group traditionally has not fared well in the Power rankings and that continued this year. Three Chrysler Group brands reported fewer problems and moved up, but Ram was the only brand to place above average at No. 12 -- tied with GMC and Nissan; Jeep was No. 23, and Dodge tied for No. 29.
The Chrysler brand had more problems than a year ago and fell to No. 25. Fiat -- which returned to the U.S. market in early 2011 -- tied Smart for dead last.
"Knowing the historical trend of how small European cars perform in IQS, Fiat's ranking wasn't unexpected," Doug Betts, head of quality at the Chrysler Group, said in a statement. "What IQS doesn't show is how much Fiat owners love their total car, even though they may not like where the window switch is located or the amount of seating room in the back seat."
VW, which is enjoying a rebound in U.S. sales, was another brand with high expectations with the study but was disappointed with the results.
"We didn't improve as much as we'd like, and it doesn't match our internal data," said Marc Trahan, VW's quality chief.
The VW brand improved to 124 problems per 100 from 131 per 100 last year -- about a 6 percent increase. But it dropped a notch in the rankings to No. 29 out of 34 brands for a three-way tie with Dodge and Mitsubishi. In last year's study, the VW brand ranked No. 28.
VW Group of America CEO Jonathan Browning said last month the brand was expecting to improve up to 10 percent.
Trahan blamed the lackluster results on the timing of the survey, which was conducted before VW implemented new quality improvement measures. He said that since taking these steps, dealers have told the company warranty repair hours are down. The launch of the redesigned Passat mid-sized sedan also has gone well, Trahan said, noting that dealers have described it as a "solid" model.
The new Passat, now built at VW's U.S. factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., was launched in September along with the redesigned Beetle.
"In years past, new model launches were a challenge for us," Trahan said. "We've proven now that's no longer an issue." So far, both the Passat and Beetle have launched better than the models they replace, he added.
Audi rose two spots to No. 16 but was below the industry average and the lowest of any import luxury brand.
Hyundai Group improves
The Hyundai-Kia group's quality drive also appeared to stall. Both brands reduced the number of problems reported, but Kia stayed at No. 18 and Hyundai fell from No. 11 into a tie with its sister brand.
American Honda Motor had fewer problems -- 83 per 100 for Honda and 84 for Acura. But the huge gains at Jaguar, Porsche and Cadillac bumped the duo to fifth and sixth in the rankings this year from silver and bronze in 2011.
Power said 65 percent of the models ranked in 2011 improved in the 2012 study, and the average quality of all-new or redesigned vehicles improved 12 percent compared with 2011.
(Source: Automotive News, 06/20/12)
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