Toyota Tumbles in Initial Quality Survey.

Toyota dropped to 21st this year (out of 33 brands) from sixth in 2009 in the J.D. Power & Associates Initial Quality Study. The automaker also fell below the industry average for the first time in the 24-year history of the survey, a decline attributed to Toyota’s massive recalls over accelerator-pedal problems.

Domestic automakers, also for the first time in the study’s history, have caught up with European and Asian brands.

The study looks at 2010 vehicles during the first 90 days of ownership. Consumers were asked whether they had any of 228 possible problems, which include malfunctions and design issues like the ease-of-use of controls and brakes generating too much dust resulting in dirty wheels.

Almost 82,000 owners responded to the survey from February to May. That was when Toyota was recalling millions of vehicles and dealing with government complaints that the automaker had delayed warning consumers about safety problems.

“The study really reflects the concerns that consumers had around the recalls,” said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power & Associates.

It wasn’t that the vehicles themselves got worse, Mr. Sargent said in a telephone interview, but owners of the vehicles involved in the recalls seemed more likely to focus on the brakes and to report anything that seemed odd.

In the survey, owners are asked questions that include whether the brakes are noisy, pull noticeably in normal use, vibrate or shudder, or don’t have enough stopping power. The areas in which consumers reported more problems related to brake feel, noise, vibration or shudder, Mr. Sargent said.

The survey also asks whether floor mats won’t stay in place.

“We did see an increase in this area for Toyota,” Mr. Sargent wrote in a follow-up e-mail message.
“It was pretty clear that Toyota’s decline in performance was driven entirely by the recalled vehicles,” he said. “The vehicles that weren’t recalled actually showed some improvement.”

Mr. Sargent said he would not identify the Toyota models that performed below average nor would he divulge their scores. He did, however, say that six of the company’s vehicles were the top winners in their segments. They were the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Sienna; the Lexus GS, GX 460 and LS 460; and the Scion xB.

James E. Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, said in a statement that the company was pleased to earn the segment awards. “However, the 2010 study was conducted at the height of intense media coverage of Toyota’s and Lexus’ recalls earlier this year, so we anticipated an impact on this specific ranking of these vehicles.”

The study grades automakers on the number of problems per 100 vehicles. In this year’s study, domestic brand vehicles had one problem fewer per 100 vehicles than imports. Mr. Sargent said that it was a minor difference but significant because domestics, which had been gaining ground over the last few years, have never beaten imports before.

The so-called premium imports, however, still dominate the survey. It is a group led by Porsche with 83 problems per 100. Next is Acura (86), followed by Mercedes-Benz (87); Lexus (88); Ford (93); Honda (95); Hyundai (102); Lincoln (106); Infiniti (107) and Volvo (109).

Several domestic brands that were above the industry average last year are below the industry average of 109 problems per 100 vehicles this year. For example, Cadillac fell to 12th place from third last year, and Chevrolet went to 12th from ninth.

Mr. Sargent does not attribute this to fallout from General Motors‘ bankruptcy, but to an “unusually high” number of vehicles the automaker introduced.

“Historically, new vehicles tend to launch with slightly more problems than carryover vehicles, and when you launch a lot of them that’s going to affect your score a little bit,” he said.

Brands from the Chrysler Group, which also went through bankruptcy, improved. The Chrysler brand moved from 31st up to 23rd; Jeep moved up from 33rd to 27th; and Dodge remained in 28th place.

Ford and Lincoln did exceptionally well. Ford improved to fifth place this year from eighth place last year. And Lincoln, based on the Lincoln MKS and MKZ, went to eight place this year, from 26th.

“Steady and meticulous attention to new model launches, along with consistency in how we do them across the brand and the globe, are having a very positive effect on the initial quality of our all-new or redesigned products,” Bennie Fowler, group vice president of global quality, said in a statement.

New vehicles that were introduced with relatively few problems were the Ford Taurus, Fusion, Mustang, Honda Accord Crosstour, Lexus GX, Mercedes E-Class coupe, redesigned E-Class sedan and the Porsche Panamera, Mr. Sargent said.

The original publication based on preliminary reports was changed to reflect the latest reports. Lexus has 88 problems per 100, not 90. Similarly, Ford has 93 (not 94) and Hyundai has 102 (not 104).

Article appeared in [wheels.blogs.nytimes]

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