Detroit 3 surpass foreign rivals in quality survey

June 18, 2010

Detroit 3 surpass foreign rivals in quality survey

The Detroit News

Detroit — It has taken 24 years, but Detroit’s Big Three beat their foreign rivals for the first time ever in J.D. Power and Associates’ influential annual study of initial vehicle quality.

Even if just barely.

Domestic brands averaged 108 problems per 100 vehicles, compared to an average 109 problems for foreign brands, according to the results of this year’s survey, released Thursday.

"After 24 years, a win is a win," said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research for the Westlake Village, Calif.-based rating firm. "The margin is small … but when you’ve trailed for 23 years, 108 to 109, that’s a significant difference."

For decades, American automakers have struggled to shed an image that their cars and trucks are inferior to import models. Other recent studies have shown the domestic companies narrowing the gap in perceived and actual quality.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s quality problems pulled down the average for foreign manufacturers. But Sargent said the domestic automakers would have won even if Toyota’s quality had remained flat, thanks largely to big gains by Ford Motor Co., whose namesake Blue Oval brand edged out Honda to become the highest-ranked non-luxury marque. Chrysler Group LLC also improved, though its vehicles remain below average.

How brands fare in J.D. Power’s initial quality survey, which asks consumers how well their vehicles performed during the first three months of ownership, historically has been a good indicator of how well the models will sell.

Ford has been improving

Reviewing the results with members of the Automotive Press Association at the Detroit Athletic Club, Sargent noted that Ford has improved steadily for the better part of a decade, but is only just now getting to the point where consumers recognize its gains.

"Virtually every vehicle they produce is massively better than it was two or three years ago," he said. "What they’ve done over the past few years is pretty impressive."

Ford came in fifth overall of the 33 brands, with 93 problems per 100 vehicles, making it the highest-rated mass market marque. Last year, Ford came in eighth.

The Dearborn automaker’s Lincoln brand came in eighth with 106, the highest ranking of any American luxury brand.

"Steady and meticulous attention to new model launches, along with consistency in how we do them across the brand and the globe, are having a very positive effect on the initial quality of our all-new or redesigned products," said Bennie Fowler, Ford’s group vice president in charge of global quality.

"While we are pleased with where we are today, our job is not done. Our plan is to keep improving quality each and every year."

A dozen Ford models ranked in the top three in their respective segments this year — more than any other automaker — and Ford products earned top honors in three, tying Toyota’s Lexus brand.

Toyota expecting the hit

While Lexus remained above average, the Toyota brand’s rating plummeted from sixth place in 2009 to 21st, with its average number of problems increasing by 16 per 100 new vehicles. That put Toyota below the industry average for the first time.

Sargent said it was not surprising, given the automaker had recalled millions of cars and trucks in late 2009 and early 2010 to fix pedals and make other adjustments after concerns were raised about unintended acceleration.

"The recalls did have a substantial effect on Toyota’s performance," he said. "Some of it is real. Some of it is Toyota customers just paying a lot more attention to their vehicles than they ever have done in the past."

Toyota was expecting the hit.

"We’re disappointed, but probably not surprised," said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif., who pointed out that the survey was conducted between February and May of this year as Toyota leaders were being grilled in Washington.

"It was at the heart of the recalls."

Toyota vehicles not included in the recalls actually showed improvements in quality consistent with the company’s past performance, and Sargent predicted its scores would rebound within a couple of years.

"What may take longer to recover is their reputation," he said.

Dodge worst-ranked in U.S.

Chrysler, which has consistently ranked among the worst manufacturers, managed to buck that trend this year — at least with its Ram pickups. After Ford and Lincoln, Ram was the highest-ranked domestic brand, coming in just below the industry average with 110 problems per 100 new vehicles.

Dodge was the worst-ranked domestic brand, but Sargent said Chrysler as a whole showed clear improvement.

"In the next year, 75 percent of our vehicles will be all-new or significantly improved," said Doug Betts, the senior vice president in charge of quality for Chrysler. "We are taking advantage of this opportunity to address the design-related issues that customers have identified while continuing to reduce defects."

Sargent said Chrysler’s results were helped by the fact that it only launched one new vehicle last year: the Ram heavy duty. In contrast, nearly a third of General Motors Co.’s volume came from new vehicles, which he said contributed to the automaker’s "disappointing year."

"They had an unusually high mix of all-new vehicles," he said. "None of them performed particularly well."

Cadillac plummeted from third in last year’s survey to 13th this year, tying Chevrolet, which slipped from ninth. Both brands averaged 111 problems per 100 vehicles. Still, 10 GM models scored in the top three of their respective segments, and Chevrolet was the leader in two.

"Without question, we do have some work to do," said GM spokeswoman Katy McBride. "Our tracking studies show that we have made improvement since then in our launch vehicles, so we are paying attention to those things."

The 2010 study is based on responses from more than 82,000 purchasers and lessees of new, 2010 model-year vehicles.

For the first time in years, the overall industry average slipped slightly. It increased from 108 problems to 109 this year. Sargent predicted overall quality would continue to improve next year.

Porsche was the highest-rated brand, with 83 problems per 100 vehicles; Land Rover was the worst, with 170.


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