- The Washington Times
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Detroit is back on top.

For the first time ever, J.D. Power and Associates has rated U.S.-brand vehicles higher than import brands in its prestigious annual Initial Quality Study. The study - now in its 24th year - is taken as the standard by which foreign and domestic cars are judged in the auto industry and is frequently cited in ads.

A J.D. Power official said the domestic brands’ unprecedented upstaging of foreign vehicles marks a substantial breakthrough for a U.S. industry that has been short on good news in recent years.

“This year may mark a key turning point for U.S. brands as they continue to fight the battle against lingering negative perceptions of their quality,” David Sargent, the firm’s vice president of global vehicle research, said in a statement. “Domestic automakers have made impressive strides in steadily improving vehicle quality, particularly since 2007.”

The difference between the U.S. and the rest was not large however. Overall, the IQS found 109 problems per 100 vehicles over 90 days of ownership, an increase over last year’s survey, which found 108 problems.

According to the study released Thursday, initial quality for domestic brands overall averaged 108 per 100 vehicles “slightly better than the initial quality of import brands, which averages 109 PP100 in 2010.”

Domestic success was largely due to Ford, who finished in fifth place overall, the first time in the study’s history that the U.S. automaker is among the five automakers with the fewest reported problems. It follows an eighth-place finish by the Detroit-based company in the 2009 IQS survey.

“The blue oval is becoming synonymous with high quality,” said Bennie Fowler, the vice president of the Ford group, in a statement on the company’s site. “While we are pleased with where we are today, our job is not done. Our plan is to keep improving quality each and every year.”

Three Ford models - the Taurus, Mustang and Focus - ranked first in their respective classes. The Ford Fusion took second in the popular midsize category, just behind of the Honda Accord and ahead of the Chevrolet Malibu. It’s a promising development for the Detroit industry, just one year removed from the crisis that pushed General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC into government-backed bankruptcies.

As usually happens, luxury brands took the top several spots, with German sportscar maker Porsche finishing first, but Ford’s fifth-place finish earned the top spot among mass-selling brands with 93 problems per 100 vehicles. It was followed immediately by Honda (95) and Hyundai (102).

Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand was the only other domestic badge that had fewer problems than the average vehicle, with a 106 rating. GM and Chrysler finished with mixed results, while GM’s GMC brand (126) and Chrysler’s Dodge vehicles (130) finished lowest among domestic brands.

The bottom of the survey was dominated by foreign brands, with the bottom four all being imports - Britain’s Mini (133), Germany’s Volkswagen (135), Japan’s Mitsubishi (146), and Britain’s Land Rover (170).

The biggest tumble though, came from a company that long had the industry’s top reputation - Toyota.

The Japanese giant felt the burden of the 9 million recalls it has made since October to deal with such problems as gas pedals and brakes in numerous previous models. Toyota slipped from sixth place in 2009 to 21st just one year later.

“Overall, we’re disappointed but probably not surprised,” said Jim Lentz, Toyota’s top U.S. sales executive. “If you look at when the survey was fielded, it was right during the height of the recall and the intense coverage of the recall.”

The 228-question survey was taken in February and March, when the Toyota recalls were dominating national headlines. The survey is designed to provide manufacturers with information to identify problems, to drive product improvement, and to improve initial quality for new-vehicle buyers.

While the size of Toyota’s slip in this year’s J.D. Power study is stunning,Mr. Lentz said it is only one measure of auto quality.

“The IQS 90-day feedback is one measurement - along with warranty claims, long-term durability, resale value and buyer loyalty - that helps us gauge the overall quality of our products,” he told the Associated Press. “We stand behind our strong performance in these and other areas and remain firmly committed to ensuring the superior quality, safety and long-term value of our cars and trucks.”

Toyota earned a rating of 117 problems per 100 vehicles this year, compared to a 101 ranking last year. Wide reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, paired with the mass recalls, damaged the company’s image.

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