Lexus ranks first in dependability

Lexus stands alone atop a closely watched ranking of vehicle dependability after Buick slipped from the No. 1 spot it shared with the Japanese luxury brand last year, J.D. Power and Associates said Thursday.

It's the 14th straight year Toyota Motor Corp.'s high-end brand has held the top position in the annual study, which measures problems experienced by the original owners of vehicles after three years. Lexus had 120 problems per 100 vehicles, down from 145 last year.

“That's a pretty good track record,” said Dave Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president of automotive research.

“They benefited to some degree … where a couple of their very important models in their second year on the market – the ES and the RX, which together account for over two-thirds of Lexus sales – both improved significantly.”

Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury brand ranked second, followed by General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac. Toyota was fourth, and Honda Motor Co.'s Acura luxury brand was fifth.

Land Rover, which Ford sold this year to India's Tata Motors Ltd., was the worst-performing brand, with 344 problems.

The industry average improved to 206 problems per 100 vehicles, from 216 a year ago.

Buick, owned by GM, fell to sixth place in this year's study with 163 problems, although its now-discontinued Buick Century was the top-ranked vehicle in the midsize car segment.

“The lower score is largely due to vehicles that are no longer in the marketplace,” Sargent said. “The vehicles are still out there, so the study is still relevant. But, obviously, they had some problems.”

Buick spokeswoman Debbie Frakes said J.D. Power's study is only one of several that the company focuses on.

“Obviously we're disappointed not to have been at the top, but as a brand we consistently rank high in many, many quality studies,” she said.

GM's Saab brand was the most improved in this year's study, improving to 254 problems from 319.

More than 60 percent of the 38 brands in the study improved from last year.

The No. 1 problem cited in the study, based on responses from more than 52,000 original owners of 2005 model-year vehicles, was wind noise, followed by noisy brakes, pulling to the left or right, dashboard issues and window fogging. The study weights all problems equally.

Vehicle dependability has been steadily improving across the industry overall, Sargent said.

Since the 2005 study, the industry average has improved from 237 problems per 100 vehicles to 206 this year. That equates to slightly more than two problems per vehicle.

Furthermore, the types of problems reported have trended toward “soft” problems, such as funny noises or aesthetic wear, in place of “hard” problems such as major technical defects, Sargent said.

“Improved quality is good for everybody. It's good for the consumer – they don't have the annoyance of problems, they don't have the costs associated,” he said. “For the manufacturer, it's obviously good news because they don't have to pay so much in warranty repairs.”

Broken out by segment, Lexus took top in six categories for its IS 300, ES 300 and LS 300 sedans, the SC 430 coupe, and the GX 470 and LX 470 utility vehicles. Toyota led four categories and tied Honda for a fifth. Toyota's Prius hybrid was the top-ranked compact car.

Bob Carter, Toyota group vice president and general manager, said the J.D. Power results are important because they reflect performance after “real-world exposure.”

He said the Prius' performance in the study signals the extent to which hybrid technology has improved since the car debuted in 2000.

“The technology is bulletproof, and customers understand it,” Carter said. “In today's environment, the only concern I have with Prius right now is meeting expectations with availability.”