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Published: Friday, 6/18/2010

U.S. autos top imports for 1st time in decades

LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The U.S. auto industry edged out import brands in an important benchmark of quality for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

Led by improvements at Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., the domestic industry's ranking topped that of overseas manufacturers for the first time in the 24 years that J.D. Power & Associates has conducted its Initial Quality Study. The study counts problems that owners experience during the first 90 days they have a new vehicle.

"This is a landmark in the quality history of the auto industry," said David Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president of global vehicle research.

The three Toledo-made Chrysler Group LLC vehicles improved in their quality performance from last year, but none ranked high in their compact crossover/sport utility vehicle category, the study found. Chrysler's total vehicles performance was not high.

Reliability and dependability problems have plagued the U.S. auto industry for decades. But Mr. Sargent said the quality gap between domestics and imports has narrowed steadily for some years. The massive restructuring of the domestic industry over the last year and the introduction of a fleet of newly designed and engineered models appears to have pushed Ford and GM over the quality hurdle, he said.

Ford and GM placed a combined 22 vehicles in the top qual-ity rankings, but Chrysler Group lagged far behind the industry.

Vehicles branded with the Ford name, with 93 defects per 100 vehicles, made it the best-performing volume brand, beating the Honda brand by two points.

The Ford Focus was the highest-ranked compact car, coming in above Honda's Civic and the Hyundai Elantra. The Ford Mustang was the highest-ranked midsize sporty car and the Ford Taurus was the top large car.

Not highly ranked were the Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler, and Dodge Nitro made at Chrysler's Toledo Assembly complex.

The Wrangler quality performance improved 13 percent from last year, and the vehicle was ranked 18th out of 22 vehicles in the compact crossover/SUV category. The Liberty performance improved by 2 percent, and it ranked 10th in the category, and the Nitro improved by 14 percent but it ranked at the bottom of the category.

The number of problems per 100 vehicles, the study's benchmark measurement, was not released for lower ranking vehicles. The overall Jeep brand improved by 6 percent from a year ago, but it ranked just 27th out of 33 nameplates, with 129 defects per 100 vehicles.

Overall, domestic brands suffered from 108 problems per 100 new vehicles, an improvement from 112 last year and down dramatically from the 164 garnered by the American automakers in 2000. Imports scored 109, up from 106 a year ago.

The improvements are paying off in the marketplace.

Sales of Ford-badged vehicles have jumped 34 percent this year, about double the industry average, according to Autodata Corp. The brand's market share has risen by nearly two percentage points to 15.2 percent.

Porsche was the top nameplate, logging just 83 problems per 100 new vehicles in the 2010 survey, compared to an industry average of 109. Acura was the top luxury brand with 86 problems, a notch better than the 87 score of Mercedes-Benz.

Toyota, a perennial high scorer, slid from sixth in last year's survey to 21st with a score of 117. That is the lowest Toyota has ever ranked and the first time in the 24 years J.D. Power has conducted the study that the Japanese automaker has scored below average.

Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles over the last year for a variety of gas pedal, acceleration, and braking issues, including many of its 2010 models that would have been the subject of the quality survey.

Mr. Sargent said Toyota customers are reporting more concerns in the areas of brakes, pedals and floor mats and are showing a greater sensitivity to anything amiss in the cars.

"I think that the challenge for Toyota is the ongoing perception in the market. We have seen with other companies that when you start to get a negative reputation for quality it can take a long time to wear off. I believe Toyota vehicles will return to high quality. The harder part is to get their image to rebound," he said.

That's one reason Toyota sales have lagged this year. Sales of Toyota-badged vehicles have risen just 8.9 percent, about half the industry average. Its market share has fallen by an entire percentage point to 13.3 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

The domestic industry is only now starting to turn its quality perceptions around after years of steady gains, he noted. And Mr. Sargent said it could take several more years of matching or beating the imports in various quality measures before American consumers believe the domestic brands are as reliable as the top import manufacturers.

Blade business staff contributed to this report.



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