DETROIT -- Automakers cling to such surveys, ready to trumpet any positive press they can squeeze out of surveys like J.D. Power and Associates' initial quality reports. J.D. Powers' top 10 nameplates for 2008, based on problems per 100 vehicles are Porsche (87 per 100), Infiniti (98), Lexus (99), Mercedes-Benz (104), Toyota (104), Mercury (109), Honda (110), Ford (112), Jaguar (112) and Audi (113). Cadillac and Chevrolet are ranked 11th and 12th, and each are listed with 113 problems per 100 vehicles -- J.D. Power rounds the numbers.
The big story, though, is that the industry as a whole improved vastly over last year, with a drop of seven problems per 100 vehicles, to 118, says Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive research. He unveiled the 2008 results Wednesday at the Automotive Press Association luncheon in Detroit. The firm ranks brands, individual models and factories based on a survey of 81,500 new car owners, taken between November 2007 and January 2008 for the current model year.
Automakers, Sargent says, "are very good these days at taking out defects, especially after the second year."
Yes, the old saw about avoiding the first year of a new model still applies, according to Sargent. That's antithetical to what most of Motor Trend's readers want. We want the first model year of a new car or truck, whether it's the Dodge Challenger SRT8, the BMW X6 or the Nissan GT-R. Still, even first-year models are getting better. Two brand-new models for 2008 even managed to score best in their class, a real achievement, Sargent says.
They are the Infiniti EX35, the highest-ranked entry premium vehicle, and the Chevrolet Malibu, highest ranked midsize car. The EX beat out the Infiniti G-Series and tied for third, the Acura TSX (that would be the old one) and the Volvo S40. The Malibu beat the Mitsubishi Galant and Ford Fusion.
Integrating technology remains a problem for new cars and trucks, though. Audio, entertainment, and navigation systems make up the only category to worsen from last year, Sargent says. "Ford Motor Company with Sync is pushing the envelope...and with that comes some risk. And there will be some consumers who do not fully understand how the system works, early on," he says, in response to a question from the press (not mine). "No manufacturer is immune from this."
New car owners with bigger models, he says, tend to report more problems than those with smaller, more fuel-efficient models. Some hybrid owners have complained of lower than expected fuel efficiency, but the complaint is not dramatic -- one or two problems per 100 vehicles, Sargent says. And loyalty does tend to breed a good score, which tends to breed more loyalty. Consumers who switched brands, or even more so, those who switched segments or a vehicle's nationality tend to count more problems in part because they're less familiar with controls.
Sargent also addressed the question of Chrysler LLC's poor performance. Dodge and Chrysler placed 28th (with 141 problems per 100) and 29th (142) out of 36 brands. (Smart and Isuzu were not counted because of insufficient sample size.) Jeep was 36th, with 167 problems.
"Chrysler takes this seriously. It has gone through a difficult period, launching a lot of new vehicles," Sargent says. "Both the Dodge and Chrysler brands did improve significantly, this year. They're not as far behind as in past years."
Ranking brands and individual models does create some interesting juxtapositions. While Dodge is ranked 28th, its Durango beat the Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander as best-ranked midsize MAV ("multi-activity vehicle") and the Dakota beat Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma as highest ranked midsize pickup. Similarly, Mazda ranked 23rd overall, with 127 problems per 100, but its MX-5 Miata beat the Subaru Impreza and Pontiac Solstice for "highest ranked compact sporty car."
Surprises? A few. Infiniti had the biggest gain, jumping from ninth place to second. I'm surprised, and also happy, to see Jaguar and Audi rounding out the top 10. Here's hoping the XF launch doesn't hurt Jag next year.
Acura is in 17th place, with one more problem than the industry average of 118 per 100, and Honda, made mostly of the same parts and in some of the same factories, is only as low as seventh because others gained on it this year. To that same point, Volkswagen is 24th, well below Audi's 10th-place ranking. Sargent says the Passat had the biggest improvement of any single model. And Scion is 27th, even though Lexus is third and Toyota is fifth. Is it lesser build quality, or does the typical Scion buyer complain about more?
Subcompact car Honda Fit
Compact car Honda Civic
Sporty car Mazda MX-5 Miata
Compact premium sporty car Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class
Entry premium vehicle Infiniti EX35
Midsize premium car Infiniti M35/45, Mercedes-Benz E-Class (tie)
Large premium car Lexus LS
Midsize car Chevrolet Malibu
Large car Pontiac Grand Prix
Compact SUV Honda CR-V
Midsize SUV Dodge Durango
Large SUV Toyota Sequoia
Midsize premium SUV Lexus RX
Large premium SUV Lincoln Navigator
Large pickup Chevrolet Silverado
Midsize pickup Dodge Dakota
Van (includes minivans) Ford E-Series
Go to jdpower.com for full results.