Quality up, gains slow
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 percent, 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, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power.
What's hurting the scores of newly introduced models? 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.
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 industry's latest 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."
The introduction of new technology is expected to continue to pose challenges for automakers. Overall problem rates for audio, entertainment and navigation systems in 2011 are 18 percent higher than in 2010 and 28 percent higher than in 2009, Power said.
"Anytime you add a new feature the potential for a new problem grows," said Sargent. "It's an industry-wide problem. Pretty much any automaker that adds a lot of technology has a problem short term."
In Ford's case, the company launched the Fiesta subcompact and the redesigned Edge crossover and Mustang coupe in the months before survey 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.
Ford said this week it was repairing problems with the MyFordTouch system. The fixes include software changes to prevent screens from blanking out.
“We’re largely back on track on some of these early issues,” Mark Fields, Ford’s head of the Americas, said earlier this week. Ford’s quality performance in North America will be “mixed” this year and will fall short of a goal to improve, he said.
Toyota, which tumbled to No. 21 in the 2010 study after years of strong finishes, has had a quieter new-product year. This year its score rebounded to its 2009 level of 101 problems per 100 vehicles.
But Toyota's Scion brand, which launched a new tC model in 2010, plummeted to No. 27 from 20th last year.
Cadillac, GMC above average
General Motors brands generally fared better this year. The automaker's best performer was Cadillac, with 103 problems per 100 vehicles, enough to climb above the industry average and place 9th.
GMC, which cut its problems to 104 per 100 from 126, also vaulted into the top 10 brands. Sargent noted GMC had no new 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.
GM was the only U.S. automaker with brands above the industry average.
“We’re making solid progress and expect future studies to reflect this improvement,” Terry Woychowski, GM’s vice president of global quality, said in a statement.
The Honda brand - benefiting from a 2011 model lineup that was largely carried over and unchanged from 2010 - enjoyed its best showing ever in the study. Honda's previous best showing in the survey was third in 1997.
Hyundai dropped slightly below the industry average with 108 problems per 100 vehicles, from 102 last year. The brand was hurt by the redesigned Sonata mid-size sedan and Elantra compact car, both top sellers for the Korean automaker, Power said.
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.
Sargent said Dodge's older models – such as the Nitro and Caliber – hurt the brand's latest results, while new models such as the Durango scored well.
"Dodge is one to watch," Sargent told Bloomberg News. "I doubt they'll be on the bottom for long."
The Chrysler Town & Country - one of 16 models Chrysler Group has redesigned or refreshed for 2011 - placed first among minivans, edging out the new Honda Odyssey.
"We've made steady gains, improving reliability by 58 percent in the past four years, according to our internal warranty data," Doug Betts, head of quality at Chrysler, said in a statement. "We still have more work to do as we continue to improve the quality of all our products."
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.