In recent years, between 2009 and 2011, automakers have improved dependability at an annual rate of 6 percent. That is lower than the 8-percent annual improvement rate of the last decade, Power said.
Cars made by Detroit automakers are more dependable than those made by import brands. But the light trucks, vans, SUVs and crossovers sold by Asian and European automakers have fewer problems than domestic models, the study said.
"The renaissance by the domestics was largely led by cars – like mid-size and the large vehicles that were very strong," said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power, citing the Ford Fusion, Mustang, and Taurus as well as the Buick Lucerne. "These were all first or second in their segments."
The imports continue to lead in light truck dependability with small crossovers, including the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4, and in the mid-size truck segment with the Toyota 4Runner, Hyundai Sante Fe, BMW X3 and the Lexus RX and GX, Sargent said
Lincoln placed No. 2 last year. Lexus moved into second place in the 2011 study, up from fourth a year earlier. Jaguar was the third highest rated, catapulting up from below average in 2010.
Buick, Cadillac and Ford were all rated above average with fewer than 151 problems per 100 vehicles. Six Asian brands – Lexus, Toyota, Acura, Hyundai, Honda and Infiniti – were also above average.
The Porsche 911 sports car had the fewest problems in the industry, with 68 per 100 vehicles.
BMW's Mini brand finished at the bottom with 221 problems per 100 vehicles. Jeep, Land Rover, Dodge and Chrysler also had more than 200 problems per 100 models surveyed.
High-tech, electronics new problem area
Power said scores are being dragged down by increased problems with electrical features such as audio, entertainment and navigation systems, as well as safety features such as tire pressure monitoring systems.
In contrast, automakers have made improvements in the long-term durability of vehicle interiors, engines and transmissions, as well as steering and braking.
Sargent said problems with electronics and high-technology features primarily affected premium brands – which tend to be the first to adopt such features.
"As manufacturers add new features and technologies to satisfy customer demand and new legislation, they face the potential for introducing new problems," he said.
The problems are not massive, "but it is significant in the context that the industry only improves a few percentage points each year," Sargent said.
"I don't say 50 percent of all cars have these problems. The incident of any problem is very low but you don't need too many people to have a problem for it to affect scores."
Sargent said problematic electronic systems included early versions of BMW's iDrive that controls navigation, climate, entertainment and other vehicle settings, as well as bugs that plagued the last generation of the Mercedes-Benz E-class.
Systems like Ford's Sync are too new to have been included in this year's dependability study.
"This will be a pervasive issue in the industry and the differentiation will come with how they introduce (new systems) and how easy it is for the owner to use," Sargent said.
Safety-related technology that posed problems include tire-pressure monitoring devices that became federally mandated for all cars starting with the 2008 model year.
"About 4 percent of consumers reported problems - 4 problems per 100 - and generally that was due to a false positive coming on when there wasn't a problem," Sargent said.
According to Power, dependability affects not only brand image and loyalty but whether a consumer takes the vehicle to a dealer for paid repair work.
The survey found 76 percent of owners who experienced no problems with their vehicles said they "definitely will" return to the dealer for paid service, but that number fell to 42 percent for owners who had six or more problems.
Majority of brands improved
In the 2011 study, 22 out of 32 brands surveyed improved their scores from last year. Smart wasn't in the 2010 study and J.D. Power listed Dodge and Ram as separate brands.
Jaguar was the most improved brand followed by Suzuki, Land Rover, Scion and Volkswagen.
Sargent said Jaguar was tied for first two years ago, but in 2010 the brand skidded to 23rd out of 36 with a number of owners reporting problems. Sargent said J.D. Power simply "couldn't put our finger," on what caused last year's decline.
He attributes Jaguar's improvement to quality systems implemented while it was under Ford Motor ownership. Ford sold the brand in 2008 to India's Tata Motors Ltd.
Lincoln's jump from second in 2010 reflects "a lot of years of improvement," said Sargent. "They have been working hard on this for 10 years."
Lincoln's MKZ sedan, MKX crossover and the Navigator SUV all performed well, he said. For the 2008 model year, Lincoln also marketed the LT pickup and venerable Town Car sedan.
The Mini brand was last, falling from 32nd out of 36 in 2010, because of a number of problems with the Cooper. The biggest problem areas were interior controls and seats which owners find "difficult to operate," rather than mechanical quality, said Sargent.
Toyota's recent recalls did not affect the 2008 model-year study.
Toyota Motor Corp. did better than any other automaker for reliability awards in individual model segments.
Its seven model awards were for the Lexus RX, Scion xB, Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Prius, Toyota Sienna, Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Tundra.
Ford Motor received four segment awards for the Ford Fusion, Ford Mustang, Lincoln MKZ and Lincoln Navigator.
General Motors got top models in the segment awards for the Buick Lucerne, Cadillac DTS, and Chevrolet Tahoe.
Honda Motor Co. also had three winners with the Acura RL, Honda CR-V and Honda Fit.
Other segment leaders were the BMW X3, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Mercedes-Benz CLK.