Power: Lexus Still Tops, Domestics Improving

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2005 Lexus RX400HThe latest survey from J.D. Power and Associates measuring vehicle quality over three years shows that U.S. automakers are continuing to gain on leaders Toyota and Honda, and that most luxury import brands are declining in long-term quality.

Power executives have been saying that its Vehicle Dependability Study has become more important to consumers than its Initial Quality Study, which measures complaints in the first three months ownership. That's because the differences in initial quality among most car companies has become relatively small and auto companies have gotten good at eliminating problems that would hurt them in that study.

In fact, Power sells its services to automakers, running new models through a gauntlet of its own design to identify problems that will cost it points in the IQS, and which automakers can fix before the cars wind up in customer driveways.

Three years of ownership, though, reveals problems that get fixed or at least covered up when the vehicle is new.

"Maintaining very high levels of quality off the assembly line as well as three years later...is no small feat," says Power's Joe Ivers.

Toyota leads all automakers in long-term quality, but that top spot is helped by the ever-improving Lexus brand, while Toyota brand vehicles have fallen. Lexus improved to 162 problems per 100 cars from 169 last year, while Toyota slipped to 216 problems per 100 from 201 last year.

As Toyota has proliferated new models, especially SUVs like Sequoia and Highlander and the high-tech Prius gas-electric hybrid, and launched a new factory in Indiana, it has been receiving more complaints from consumers than in past years.

While General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler all posted improvements from last year, GM is the only domestic automaker to score above the industry average at 262 problems per 100 vehicles. The industry average improved to 269 problems, versus 273 last year. GM's Buick and Cadillac brands scored better than Toyota-brand vehicles.

Consumers have come to assume that the study shows that Caddy and Buicks are better quality than Toyota. Maybe - but what it really means is that owners of Cadillacs and Buicks had fewer complaints than Toyota owners. Toyota owners, however, are younger than those of Buick and Cadillac tend to be tougher evaluators.

Still, U.S. automakers are improving every year. "The domestics are putting their money where their mouths are in terms of consistent long-term quality improvement," said Ivers.

Ford VP of quality Louise Goeser called Ford's improvement of twelve problems per 100 vehicles "a great improvement," and said it underscores Ford's commitment to reverse the quality problems it suffered in the last five years.

Though Ford is below industry average, behind GM, and a long way off from matching Toyota or Honda, Goeser said there is a "perception gap" between the perception and reality of the improvements in Big Three quality. "Getting the message across is always a challenge," says Goeser.

Toyota spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell said that Toyota is not losing ground on "defects," but more in the area of customer preferences. She noted that some Toyotas lost points on brake noise, a typical characteristic of many Asian cars, and uneven tire wear.

Import luxury cars generally scored worse compared with last year and the year before. BMW, Infiniti, Mercedes, Porsche, Jaguar, and Land Rover and Saab all scored worse, with Ford's Jaguar worsening by 63 problems per 100 and Land Rover falling by 31 problems. Land Rover officials said Tuesday that the survey reflects Land Rovers designed and manufactured either by the Rover Group or BMW, which owned Rover in the mid-1990s. The company, now a unit of Ford and never known for quality, will climb out of the cellar starting in 2006 when the all-new 2003 Range Rover is counted and in 2008 when the LR3 is counted.

Jaguar improved this year in IQS from tenth to third. "We hope that is an indication of improvements in VDS going forward," said Jaguar spokeswoman Rose Marinello.

Among the highlights of the study:

-Lexus topped the list for the tenth straight year.

-Toyota topped seven out of seventeen segments. It finished second in four others.

-Kia was most improved brand since last year, bettering its score by 77 problems per 100 vehicles, but still scoring next-to-last ahead of just Land Rover.

-Audi was most improved luxury make, scoring 23 fewer problems per 100 vehicles since last year's study.

-The Honda Odyssey was top ranked minivan. The Toyota MR2 Spyder was top ranked sporty car, while Honda S2000 topped the premium sports car segment.

-Porsche topped the corporate rankings last year and placed an impressive fourth among individual brands. Porsche went from top automaker last year, ahead of Toyota, to third place among corporations and tenth among brands.

-The Ford F-150 was the top-ranked pickup. The Chevy Tahoe was top ranked full-size SUV. The Chevy Malibu topped entry mid-size cars including Toyota Camry Honda Accord.

To see the whole VDS, go to http://www.motorauthority.com

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