Toyota's luxury brand, Lexus, took the top spot in the J.D. Power survey,… (Lexus )
The overall quality of new automobiles has improved, according to a consumer survey by J.D. Power & Associates, although complaints about complicated onboard audio, entertainment and navigation systems were on the rise.
Overall, owners of 2012 vehicles reported 5% fewer problems during the first three months of ownership, compared with last year's survey. Michelle Krebs, an auto industry analyst at Edmunds.com, said the industry is paying more attention to potential problem areas.
"With the economy getting better, the industry is putting a lot more money in fixes," Krebs said. "In the past they may have recognized the problems, but the economy was such and the companies' finances were such that they didn't have the money to fix them. Now they can afford to act."
Still, complaints about multimedia systems increased 8%, continuing an upward trajectory — they've risen 45% since 2006. J.D. Power put much of the blame on technology that's relatively new for cars, including voice recognition.
Complaints about hands-free communication systems have climbed 137% over the last four years.
This year's survey of 74,000 owners and leasers was conducted from February to May.
"Automakers have been very good at fixing the mechanical quality of the vehicles, but when you have a new technology, it's a whole new ball game," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at auto price information company TrueCar.
People who buy cars want communication and other mobile systems to work as well as they do outside vehicles, said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power.
"Younger customers have much higher expectations," Sargent said in a conference call after the survey was released. "They have iPhones and iPad devices that do what they want them to do, and then they get in their cars and they expect that technology to do the same thing."
Chris Bailey, 38, an event marketer in Austin, Texas, bought a new Ford Focus in February because he was impressed by the car's handling. But he's been disappointed with the voice activation system.
"It has a hard time picking up what I'm saying, which might not be too bad, in terms of practicing my speech quality," Bailey said. "But it can be really difficult when you're trying to do navigation. I've usually had to pull off to the side of the road."
Ford released an update for its MyFord Touch communication and entertainment system in March aimed at 377,000 U.S. customers. The company said 90% of those car owners have installed it.
"We are seeing a significant improvement in satisfaction amongst owners that have installed the new software upgrade, and we expect to improve even more as we continuously improve the product with ongoing software updates for new and existing customers," Alan Hall, a spokesman for Ford Technology, said in an email.
Sargent said Ford took a risk by diving into this technology, and is now fixing the bugs. "We would expect Ford to rebound" in future surveys, he said.
In this year's overall survey, Toyota's luxury brand, Lexus, took the top spot with 73 complaints per 100 vehicles. Jaguar and Porsche tied for second place with scores of 75.
Honda continued to perform well in the survey after two major launches this year — new versions of its CR-V and Civic. Launches tend to bring more complaints from owners, but Honda's new vehicles debuted strongly.
"Honda went along as if nothing had happened," Sargent said. "Honda, frankly is one of the best at launching."
Though Chrysler fell in the rankings, its revamped Chrysler 300 model that launched this year scored highly.
"Chrysler has put a lot of money behind new product launches," Krebs said. "They've got the new Dodge Dart launch coming up, so they've got to put resources behind them. The public is going to want it to be really good."