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Car quality: Japanese dominate
General Motors only American carmaker to rank above average overall.
July 8, 2003: 4:32 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - While Japan's largest automakers dominated an annual vehicle quality survey released Tuesday, General Motors Corp. scored high and DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes brand stalled.

J.D. Power long-term quality survey
Problems per 100 vehicles
General Motors264
Source:J.D. Power and Assoc.

The benchmark J.D. Power and Associates survey of long-term vehicle quality polled 55,000 owners of 3-year-old vehicles and found that some automakers are not living up to their promises -- or reputation -- for better quality.

"About half of new car buyers say longer-term dependability is a key factor in choosing which vehicle they want," said Joe Ivers, J.D. Power's executive director of quality and customer satisfaction research. "This is becoming the next major issue in the auto industry, and a much more consistent focus from automaker to automaker than it has been in the past."

As it has for the past several years, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus luxury unit topped the brand rankings with 163 problems per 100 vehicles, followed by Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Infiniti brand, GM's Buick unit, Porsche AG and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura brand.

Among manufacturers overall, Porsche led the list, followed closely by Toyota. Honda, Nissan and BMW AG rounded out the top five.

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CNNfn's Allan Chernoff takes a look at J.D. Power and Associates' vehicle quality survey and the most reliable rides.

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GM was the only one of Detroit's Big Three automakers to rank above the industry average of 273 problems per 100 vehicles, with its Buick, Cadillac, GMC and Chevrolet brands all performing above average. In vehicle segment rankings, 12 GM models had top-three results, a number second only to Toyota, which had 13.

Ivers noted that GM had never performed above the industry average in prior surveys and that the survey backed up claims by GM executives that they were matching the quality of Japanese automakers.

"This year, we see them [GM] sort of turn a corner," he said. "They've begun to show evidence of closing that gap" with foreign automakers.

Plymouth vs. Mercedes

Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln brand scored just above Honda and its Mercury brand did better than the industry average. But the Ford brand was below average, with 273 problems per 100 vehicles, dragging down the company as a whole.

While Ford's F-Series pickup topped its class, the survey was the first to include the Ford Focus, which was plagued with quality problems when it was launched in 1999.

Top 10 Brands
These nameplates had the fewest problems per 100 vehicles after 3 years.
Source:J.D. Power and Assoc.

"Since the 1997 model year, Ford vehicles have been improving on a consistent basis. This year is a bit of an exception," Ivers said. "The Focus is one of those vehicles that hasn't aged gracefully."

Perhaps the study's most shocking results involve DaimlerChrysler. Since the 1998 merger, Daimler executives have contended that Mercedes-Benz's knowledge of how to build quality vehicles would be used to improve the Chrysler brands.

But Chrysler, Dodge and the now-defunct Plymouth brand all outranked Mercedes, which had 318 problems per 100 vehicles. Ivers said Mercedes' troubles were concentrated in its M-Class sport utility vehicle and its E-Class sedans, which accounted for roughly half its sales.

"The M-Class has had a lot of problems since its launch," Ivers said. "The rate of deterioration on the E-Class is greater than on any other vehicle in the industry."

Top Vehicles
These vehicles had fewest problems in their segments.
Vehicle typeTop ranked
Premium luxuryLexus LS 400
Entry-level luxuryLexus ES 300
Luxury SUVLexus RX 300
Premium sports carPorsche 911
Full-size carMercury Grand Marquis
Compact carToyota Corolla
Source:J.D. Power and Assoc.

Mercedes also had the largest gap between initial quality (the number of problems found when a vehicle is brand-new) and long-term quality. Volvo and Audi cars also detiorated more rapidly than average.

The manufacturers performing worst in the survey were Volkswagen, Suzuki, Daewoo and Kia. Those names, along with Ford's Land Rover brand, were also the worst-ranked brands in the survey. Land Rover was second-worst with 441 problems per 100 vehicles. Kia had 509.

Long-term quality often translates into money won or lost for automakers. Ivers said Honda's reputation for durability translates to a $1,500 premium in the new car market, with a even larger premium in used vehicles.

In addition, auto suppliers have said Japanese automakers' warranty costs average $300 to $400 per vehicle, with Toyota averaging less than $100 per vehicle, compared with $600 to $700 per vehicle for the Big Three.

The most common problems that occur more frequently as vehicles age are excessive brake wear, air conditioning issues, wind noise and replacement of components not called for under normal maintenance schedules. New problems that tend to crop up with advancing age are suspension component problems, faded, cracked or worn materials, and fluid leaks.

Among new-vehicles buyers, 52 percent indicate that long-term durability is an important factor, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Among used-car buyers, 42 percent report choosing a used vehicle because they felt the quality was as good as a new vehicle.

This year's survey is not directly comparable to previous studies because J.D. Power lowered the age of the vehicles it was monitoring to catch problems earlier.  Top of page

-- Reuters contributed to this story.

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