Ford Declines, Toyota Rebounds in Initial Quality Report

J.D. Power: 'Infotainment' Features Cause Discomfort Among Drivers

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Buyer satisfaction with new cars and trucks from Ford Motor Co., a strength that has helped it increase sales and market share in recent years, has tumbled, and Toyota has rebounded from its abnormally poor year-ago showing, according to a study released today as reported by Automotive News.

In a J.D. Power & Associates survey that tracks problems reported during the first 90 days of ownership, the Ford and Lincoln brands plunged below the industry average of 107 problems reported per 100 models studied.

Power said the results are being shaded by two increasingly important factors: Complex "infotainment" features that are causing discomfort among new users, and fuel-saving powertrain refinements that make automatic transmissions seem to hesitate in an unfamiliar way when they shift gears or accelerate.

Ford, which ranked fifth and was the highest mass-market brand in last year's Initial Quality Study, fell to No. 23, and its problems per 100 vehicles rose to 116 from 93.

It was the first time since the 2006 model year that the Ford brand fell below the industry average in the closely watched study.

Lincoln dropped to 17th this year from eighth place in 2010, with 111 problems reported per 100 vehicles. Lexus topped all brands with 73 problems per 100 vehicles. It was followed by Honda, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda and Porsche, which placed first in 2010.

Dodge finished last, with 137 problems per 100 vehicles. Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and Mini also placed at the bottom of the survey.

The Toyota brand, which dropped below the industry average last year for the first time in the wake of its unintended-acceleration crisis, rebounded to place seventh, with 101 problems per 100 vehicles.

Overall, Power said, initial vehicle quality keeps getting better, but bobbles on several new-model launches is slowing the pace of industry improvement to a crawl.

The industry average of 107 problems per 100 vehicles was down from 109 a year ago.

But the results for redesigned or freshened vehicles slipped 10%, to 122 problems per 100, from 111, after launch quality had improved from 2007 to 2010.

"We're not seeing the average improve as much as we'd like," said David Sargent, VP-global vehicle research at J.D. Power.

What's hurting the scores of newly introduced models? Mr. Sargent cited a surge in complaints about two types of problems: engines and transmissions that "hesitate" when accelerating or shifting gears, and nonintuitive electronic controls as automakers rush to offer enhanced infotainment features such as voice-activated controls.

And automakers, responding to demand for better fuel economy, have tweaked engine and transmission software to boost MPG figures.

Mr. Sargent described the problems of mass-market brands in introducing advanced technology "as an echo" of the quality-score lumps luxury brands took earlier when they added similar features.

"Consumers are interested in having new technologies in their vehicles, but automakers must ensure the technology is ready for prime time," he said. "Automakers must be careful to walk before they can run."

He also blames cutbacks in engineering during the auto downturn and a rush to introduce fresh products for the rise in complaints.

"Manufacturers are trying to do a lot very quickly," he said. "In the slump they had to cut head count. Now they're beefing up, but they may be stressing the system to do so much."

In Ford's case, the company launched the Fiesta subcompact and the redesigned Edge crossover and Mustang coupe in the months before Power IQS respondents bought their cars. Ford has also rapidly expanded the availability of its Sync, MyKey and MyFord Touch technologies that provide touch-screen displays and hands-free, voice-activated controls.

Toyota, which tumbled to No. 21 in the 2010 study after years of strong finishes, had had a quieter new-product year. This year its score rebounded to its 2009 level of 101 problems per 100 vehicles.

General Motors brands generally fared better this year. The automaker's best performer was Cadillac, with 103 problems per100 vehicles, enough to climb above the industry average and place ninth.

GMC, which cut its problems to 104 per 100 from 126, also vaulted into the top 10 brands. Mr. Sargent noted that GMC had no product launches before the survey, which was conducted from February through May.

"Any year you don't have launches, you can concentrate on quality improvements and GMC shows the kind of changes you can achieve," he said.

Hyundai dropped slightly below the industry average with 108 problems per 100 vehicles, from 102 last year.

The Hyundai Equus luxury sedan and Dodge Durango SUV were among the new or redesigned models that fared well in the study, J.D. Power said.

Power's IQS results are based on responses from 73,000 U.S. purchasers and lessees of 2011-model light vehicles after 90 days of ownership. The 228-question survey attempts to capture problems experienced by owners in two areas: design-related problems and defects and malfunctions.

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