Nissan and Hummer roared back from dismal performances a year ago to post double-digit gains in the closely watched Initial Quality Study from J.D. Power and Associates.
And Toyota, which last year was rocked by being ranked behind Hyundai and Mercury, scored better than both of those brands this year.
For the fifth year in a row, Lexus held the top spot in the study, which measures quality after 90 days of ownership. It also had the two top-ranked vehicles, the SC 430 convertible and LS 430 sedan.
BMW and Audi vaulted into the top 10 this year, displacing Honda and Mercury.
Average holds steady
Fifteen of 36 brands scored better than the industry average of 118 problems per 100 vehicles on the 2005 study, which was released last week. Last year, the industry average stood at 119 problems per 100 vehicles.
"The industry performance this year remains pretty flat, but that kind of stuff is not uncommon," said Neal Oddes, senior director of research for J.D. Power of Westlake Village, Calif. "It's happened twice before in the history of the study. Both times before, we saw a dramatic improvement the next year."
The study has been done for 19 years.
Missing from this year's report is the ranking of automakers by corporation. Last year, Hyundai Motor America surprised some observers when it tied with American Honda Motor Co. Inc. for second place, behind Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
The corporate ranking was dropped from the report because J.D. Power wants the focus back on the brand rankings, spokesman John Tewes said.
"For virtually every corporation model, performance varies widely, with some models doing very well and others not performing as well," Tewes said. "One number for a corporation doesn't necessarily provide good guidance for a particular model that a consumer may be considering."
Toyota still on top
Toyota Motor Corp. continued its dominance of the study, having the top-rated vehicle in 10 of 18 segments. Its plant in Tahara, Japan, which builds the Lexus GS 300/430 and LS 430, repeated as the top-rated factory for quality.
General Motors' vehicles were top rated in five vehicle segments, its best performance in the history of the survey. Buick and Cadillac remained in the top 10 brands, but Chevrolet slipped below the industry average with 127 problems per 100 vehicles. Saturn and Saab ranked in the bottom one-third of brands.
The biggest gainer among brands was Hummer, which vaulted into a tie for 10th place after it finished last in the 2004 study with a score of 173 problems per 100. Hummer's score of 110 problems per 100 vehicles equaled that of Hyundai.
The study asks owners to rate vehicle quality on 135 attributes. Last year, Hummer executives complained that their vehicles were downgraded on factors such as fuel economy, which they argued was not a quality measure.
Power's Oddes noted that Hummer scores improved this year on 76 of the 135 attributes, but its score on fuel economy was unchanged.
"Hummer made big improvements on moldings and wind noise," Oddes said. "The study hasn't changed since 1998. That kind of increase can't be just on fuel consumption."
Crisis fixes quality
Nissan's crisis mentality in the wake of last year's rating of 154 problems per 100 vehicles paid off. The automaker rushed 200 engineers from Japan to its assembly plant in Canton, Miss., to fix problems with the Quest minivan, Titan pickup and Armada SUV.
The result: Nissan rated 120 problems per 100 vehicles on the study, just under the industry average and tied with Jeep and Mercury. The 2005 Quest improved its rating by 104 problems per 100 vehicles, J.D. Power said.
The company does not release the scores of any individual model.
Itaru Koeda, co-chairman of the Nissan board, said the company must push harder: "We did a good job, but we are not happy with it yet."
Meanwhile, Mazda re-examined its quality strategy after finishing second to last.
"There is a breakdown in communications between our company in Japan and our customers in America," said Seita Kanai, Mazda Motor Corp. managing executive officer in charge of vehicle development and technical affairs. "We aren't hearing what they want, and we aren't communicating to them the positive aspects of our cars."
Oddes said automakers are improving vehicle quality at launches. Three new vehicles, the Hyundai Tucson sport wagon, Ford Mustang coupe and Ford Five Hundred sedan, ranked among the top three vehicles in their segments.
GM swept J.D. Power's ranking of plant quality for North and South America, with its Oshawa, Ontario, No. 1 and No. 2 plants and its plant in Hamtramck, Mich. Displaced were GM's Grand River plant in Lansing, Mich., as the top-rated plant, and Ford Motor Co.'s Wixom, Mich., plant as third-ranked.
James B. Treece and Yuzo Yamaguchi contributed to this report
You may e-mail Dale Jewett at [email protected]