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Auto quality slumps in 2011; imports regain edge

J.D. Power & Associates' annual U.S. Initial Quality Study shows that new models have 10% more problems overall than 2010 vehicles as a result of more complicated technology.

June 23, 2011|By Salvador Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2010, a Ford engineer demonstrates features that can be controlled from a display screen, including navigation and entertainment.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2010, a Ford engineer… (Don Kelsen, Los Angeles…)

Touch screens and voice commands didn't go over too well with new-car buyers.

A key auto quality study found that new or redesigned 2011 models were less reliable than the previous year's line, much of it because of new high-tech navigation systems that didn't work properly.

Domestic nameplates, which have been pushing the new technologies, were hurt the most, allowing imports to regain their lead in reliability after losing that distinction for the first time last year, according to the J.D. Power & Associates annual U.S. Initial Quality Study.

The influential study — often used by consumers for purchasing decisions and cited by automakers for marketing their vehicles — found that newer models across the board had 10% more problems on average than 2010 vehicles.

"Every time you put in new technology, you're adding one more thing that could possibly go wrong," said Dave Sargent, vice president of vehicle research at J.D. Power.

Ford suffered the most notable drop in the survey — falling from fifth place overall in 2010 to 23rd — as it introduced new features that baffled many drivers.

"A lot of times engineers design these things, and they are more technically minded than the rest of us," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for auto information company "I'm sure they'll work those kinks out, but right now it's hurting them."

Glenn Kopensky can attest to that. After being drawn to Ford's MyFord Touch, a multimedia dashboard system that allows the driver to control calls, music and the navigation system with voice commands and a touch screen, Kopensky said he was ready to trade in his $50,000, 9-month-old Lincoln MKX.

"It really has been a huge disappointment," said Kopensky, 52, of Philadelphia. "It's a touch screen so you expect it to work like an Apple iPhone, and it's nothing like that — you have to hold your finger to the screen for three seconds for something to happen and you have to take your eyes off the road, and that's not very good."

Ford, in a statement, said it expected the "mixed quality results" but that it was "back on track after addressing near-term quality issues with MyFord Touch and a few of our powertrains."

Ford and other automakers also introduced transmission systems that were designed to meet dueling consumer demands for better performance and higher fuel economy.

These systems were programmed to look constantly for the most efficient gear, but they made drivers feel as though their vehicles were hesitating.

"Consumers are getting frustrated because it seems like their vehicles are always changing gears when they don't need them to," Sargent said. "The software reacts very quickly, and sometimes it's almost too clever for its own good."

Playing it safe when it came to new features and not introducing too many new models worked in favor of imports, especially from Japanese manufacturers, which retook the top spots after being surpassed by domestics last year for the first time in the survey's 25-year history.

"The Japanese brands have really moved ahead this year," Sargent said. "We expect the American manufacturers to fight back, but right now, what we had last year is currently a one-year phenomenon."

Honda led the pack in reliability, taking seven segment awards, something that has happened only three times in the study's history.

Sargent attributed Honda's success to the manufacturer's improving its line of already established cars and not introducing too many new models.

"All of Honda's vehicles this year were not new," he said. "They were carry-overs from the previous years or just minor updates, and when you have that, that's a perfect time when you would expect quality to be at its best."

Toyota saw a resurgence in reliability with its line of 2011 vehicles, moving up to seventh overall Thursday after dropping to 21st a year ago, when it went through a rough period that was highlighted by massive recalls of its flagship model, the Prius.

"That's now pretty much passed," Sargent said. "Toyota bounced back."

Toyota's luxury brand, Lexus, had the best line of cars in terms of quality.

At the bottom of the pack was Dodge, whose poor quality ratings Sargent attributed to vehicles that haven't been updated and have dragged down the manufacturer's quality for years.

The top 10 based on the least number of problems reported in the first three months of operation were Lexus, Honda, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Porsche, Toyota, Infiniti, Cadillac and GMC.

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