By DAN STRUMPF, AP Auto Writer
NEW YORK – Jaguar and Buick surged to the top of J.D. Power and Associates' closely watched vehicle dependability study this year, tying for the No. 1 spot and dethroning Lexus for the first time since the Japanese luxury brand has been a part of the survey.Lexus, Toyota Motor Corp.'s luxury brand, took the next spot in the study released Thursday, followed by Toyota's namesake brand, then Mercury, Infiniti and Acura.
"Buick and Jaguar both lead the industry in nameplate performance," said Neal Oddes, director of product research and analysis at J.D. Power. "In terms of individual model performance, Lexus and Toyota still do very, very well."The annual study measures problems experienced by the original owners of vehicles after three years. Suzuki owners reported the most problems among the 37 brands assessed by J.D. Power.
Despite losing its crown to Jaguar and Buick, Lexus still swept top awards in four segments, while Toyota's namesake brand took five awards. General Motors Corp.'s Buick LaCrosse was J.D. Power's top midsize car, while Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln brand took two awards. Chrysler LLC, which took no segment awards last year, won top honors for its Dodge Caravan in the van segment.Jaguar jumped from the No. 10 spot in 2008, while Buick leapt from the No. 6 spot. The movement is notable for a study that is fairly consistent from year to year, and the results marked the first time Lexus was not either first or tied for first since it was first included in the study in 1995. Oddes said both Jaguar and Buick have made significant improvements recently.
"We see improvements all over the board with Jaguar," Oddes said, citing fewer reported problems with vehicle exterior, sound system and the overall driving experience. "The improvement at a nameplate level is significant."Mike O'Driscoll, Jaguar's managing director, said the award marks a huge step forward for Jaguar's image in the U.S., which he acknowledged has suffered recently. He said the company has been working furiously to reinvent itself in recent years.
"The improvements really started with a major investment we made at Jaguar in new technology and a much more intelligent approach to design," he said. "This is really a vindication of that investment and technology."Oddes also said Buick has taken heed of problems reported in previous J.D. Power studies and made "continuous improvement on their side of things."
Jamie Hresko, GM's vice president of quality, said the win for Buick is a win for GM overall because the company has duplicated the lessons from Buick in all new models."I think we still struggle with the perception, that the perception of our product is substandard," he said. "If we continue to attack the markets that we consider will be high volume, which is markets like the Chevrolet Malibu, and we can sell a few hundred thousand of them, the reputation will spread."
Buick has performed at or near the top of the J.D. Power rankings in past years, tying Lexus for first two years ago, but dropping to sixth last year. Hresko expects the company's other brands to do better than past years in the J.D. Power initial quality survey.Jaguar, which Indian car giant Tata Motors Ltd. bought from Ford in 2007, remains a relatively small-volume brand in the U.S. It sold just 14,000 vehicles here in 2008, while Buick sold 128,000.
Oddes said this year's study was redesigned to exclude routine fixes from a vehicle's list of problems. For example, the study no longer counts tire or windshield wiper replacements as a reportable problem. The intended result is a study that focuses on actual glitches with a vehicle, Oddes said, though it also makes it difficult to make year-over-year comparisons."We cleaned up the survey to really try to focus in on things that are truly broken," he said.
The industry average was 170 problems per 100 vehicles, or somewhat less than two problems per vehicle. Last year, the industry average was 206 problems per 100 vehicles, but year-over-year improvements this year are much less pronounced when accounting for the changes in the study's methodology, Oddes said.The numerical differences between brands that crowd the top are extremely small. For example, Jaguar and Buick owners reported an average of 122 problems per 100 vehicles, while Lexus owners reported 126 and Toyota 129. At the bottom, Suzuki owners reported an average of 263 problems per 100 vehicles.
The most frequently reported problem was wind noise, followed by brake noise, peeling paint, brake vibrations and problems with a vehicle's lights, Oddes said. The problems have been fairly consistent from year to year, he said.J.D. Power's dependability study surveyed 46,313 original owners of 2006 model-year vehicles in October 2008. The results are watched closely by automakers and are often used in advertising. Owners' opinion of a car after three years can be a major influence on their opinion to buy that brand again.
The firm also releases an initial quality study, which measures problems in the first 90 days of ownership. That study usually comes out in June.