U.S. automakers, which have long battled perceptions of poor craftsmanship in their cars, edged out imports in a key benchmark of quality for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
Led by improvements at Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., the domestic industry topped J.D. Power & Associates' latest initial quality study -- something that has never happened before in the survey's 24 years.
The Toyota brand, a perennial star in the survey, plunged below average as it has struggled with massive recalls.
"This is a landmark in the quality history of the auto industry," said David Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president of global vehicle research.
The gains reported Thursday are a result of major initiatives at Ford and GM "to really focus on quality in both design and manufacturing started several years ago," said Xavier Mosquet, a senior partner with Boston Consulting Group in Detroit. "This didn't happen by chance."
He said the findings were important because measurements of short-term quality are often harbingers of long-term reliability. Additionally, the survey may persuade consumers to reassess persistent views that domestic makers trail imports in reliability, he said.
That could help sales at a time when the U.S. auto industry is recovering from a devastating slump that forced GM and Chrysler to seek Bankruptcy Court protection and massive federal bailouts just last year.
The quality gap between domestics and imports has narrowed steadily for some years now, Sargent said. And the introduction of newly designed and engineered models appears to have pushed Ford and GM over the quality hurdle, he said.
The improvements are already paying off in the marketplace.
Sales of Ford-badged vehicles have jumped 34% this year, about double the gains for the industry overall, according to Autodata Corp. The brand's market share has risen by nearly two percentage points to 15.2%.
"I've noticed a huge improvement," said Lynne Roberto, a La Crescenta retiree and Acura owner who purchased a Ford Flex in October. "It's night and day. Everything Ford is putting out right now has improved over cars from a few years ago. They're built better, with better materials, better styling; they're super-reliable. It really surprised me."
The study measures how many problems owners experience during the first 90 days they have a new vehicle.
Ford and GM placed a combined 22 vehicles in the top quality rankings, but Chrysler Group lagged far behind its domestic rivals and the entire industry, the Westlake Village auto information company said.
Ford, with an average of 93 defects per 100 vehicles, was the best-performing non-luxury brand, beating Honda with 95. The Ford Focus was the highest-ranked compact car, coming in above Honda's Civic and the Hyundai Elantra. The Ford Mustang was the highest-ranked midsize sporty car, and the Ford Taurus was the top large car.
"We are pleased, but we are not satisfied. We still need to get better," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said in an interview. "In the area of quality there is never a finish line. Customers expectations' are rising every year, and we have to raise the bar every year."
Overall, domestic brands suffered from an average of 108 problems per 100 new vehicles, an improvement from 112 last year and down sharply from the 164 garnered by American automakers in 2000. Imports scored 109, up from 106 a year ago.
This year's 109 average for all vehicles was a point worse than last year, the first time the measure has increased since 2007.
Porsche was the top nameplate, logging just 83 problems per 100 new vehicles. The worst was Land Rover, with 170 flaws.
Struggling Toyota slid from sixth place last year to 21st currently with a score of 117, the first time it has scored worse than average.
Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles over the last year for a variety of gas pedal, acceleration and braking issues, including many of its 2010 models that were included in the quality survey.
Sargent said Toyota customers were showing a greater sensitivity to anything amiss in the cars.
"We have seen with other companies that when you start to get a negative reputation for quality it can take a long time to wear off. I believe Toyota vehicles will return to high quality. The harder part is to get their image to rebound," Sargent said.
That's one reason Toyota sales have lagged the industry this year. Sales of Toyota-badged vehicles have risen just 8.9%, about half the industry average.
Domestic nameplates also have been gaining on imports in longer measures of reliability and now have about the average life of an import, said Mosquet of Boston Consulting.