The quality gurus say autos are getting better every year, but the people who actually own and drive them still have complaints--an average of almost four problems per vehicle after four to five years, according to researchers at J.D. Power & Associates.
But even though the kinds of problems are mostly the same--complaints about brakes, ride quality, handling and engine troubles dominate--the numbers have improved substantially since Power began surveying owners of older vehicles a dozen years ago.
"We've tracked a 31% decline in average complaints per 100 vehicles" from the first survey in 1990 until 1999, said Brian Walters, product research director at Agoura Hills-based Power. The survey was redesigned last year and again this year, he said, so for the most part results cannot be directly compared with those of the first decade. Still, he said, "we are seeing a continued decline in the number of complaints."
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus luxury line scored tops in durability in the 2001 survey--the seventh straight win for the brand--with an average of 172 problems per 100 vehicles, less than half the norm.
Infiniti-brand luxury vehicles from Nissan Motor Co. were second with 219 problems per 100.
This year's ratings are based on a survey of 40,000 owners of model-year 1997 passenger cars and light trucks. The industrywide average was 382 problems per 100 vehicles.
Import and luxury brands took most of the top spots, with Lexus and Infiniti joined by archrival Acura, the luxury brand of Honda Motor Co., in fifth place with 255 problems per 100 vehicles.
Ford Motor Co., however, did well, with a third-place finish for its once-troubled Jaguar brand (250 problems per 100 cars) and fourth for its domestic luxury brand, Lincoln (a score of 253).
The ratings help measure long-term reliability and quality, Walters said.
"Most manufacturers pay attention to initial-quality surveys," he said, referring to those taken when vehicles are new and still under warranty. The durability survey "shows them what happens after the warranty has expired and the manufacturer doesn't have any way of tracking problems."
General Motors Corp. and Ford, Walters said, "just a few years ago were using V-8 engines that were designed 20 years earlier." Learning about problems in an aging vehicle can help an auto maker make changes in key components that are carried over from year to year.
"Also, many people buy new cars or trucks after four to five years, and the number and kinds of problems they've had with their old vehicle help determine which brands they will--and won't--shop for," he said.
Among cars and trucks for the common folk, Honda and Toyota tied for the top spot with 278 problems per 100 vehicles--and tied for sixth in the overall ranking.
Rounding out the top 10 were GM's Cadillac brand at 285, Porsche at 292 and Mercedes-Benz at 296.
Domestic brands, excluding Ford-owned Jaguar, accounted for five of the next 10 spots, giving U.S. auto makers seven of the top 20.
"Some of the domestic auto makers have been getting a bum rap," Walters said. "But this shows their actual performance exceeds their reputation. And if you look at Ford and GM, you can see that they know how to do it right. Look at Ford with Jaguar and Lincoln; GM with Buick and Cadillac. Now they need to apply what they know to all their other brands."
Power doesn't publish scores for the brands whose 1997 models had complaints equal to or worse than the industry average. In alphabetical order, they are Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Eagle, Geo, GMC, Hyundai, Isuzu, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Plymouth, Pontiac, Suzuki, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Of the 18, Eagle, Geo and Plymouth no longer are sold.