Although Japanese brands still dominated Consumer Reports' annual ranking for predicted reliability, the editors say Ford Motor is making such strides it has pulled well ahead of its Detroit rivals.
And after a weaker-than-usual showing last year, Toyota surged back to the top echelon. "The Japanese manufacturers still own the top of the charts," said Consumer Reports' auto editor David Champion. "They've built their reputation on reliability."
Automakers covet a top score because of the non-profit, independent nature of Consumers Union, the magazine's publisher. Predicted reliability is based on a survey of subscribers about 1.4 million vehicles they own or lease. Data are based on three years of the model unless it's been out fewer years.
Japanese products held the top spots for predicted reliability of 2009 models in every vehicle category. Japanese or South Korean brands held the top 10 spots in the separate ranking of full brand lines. Toyota's Scion scored a double: Best brand overall, and its xD model was the top small car.
"The recognition is especially gratifying since the xD launched last year as an all-new model," said Toyota spokesman Xavier Dominicis. "We have redoubled our efforts around quality."
A Ford brand didn't make the top 10, but Lincoln was 11, Mercury 15 and Ford 17, and editors said the company is making big strides. When lower-ranking, truck-based models are excluded, Ford rivals the top Japanese products, Champion said.
Ford officials say they are pleased. "Our quality is on par with the best in the world," said Bennie Fowler, Ford's senior vice president for global quality. The company has worked hard to improve quality, from the design stage to production, he added. Among the changes: Warranty repairs at dealerships are reported to headquarters within 48 hours, allowing teams to look for patterns and fix problems before more units are made.
Consumer Reports singled out Chrysler as Detroit's worst. Almost two-thirds of its models rate below-average in reliability.
"We are disappointed," said Chrysler spokeswoman Beverly Thacker. "We know we have to improve, and that's what we're doing on a daily basis."
Among Consumer Reports' other findings:
•Small cars did well. Some of the most fuel-efficient cars were the most reliable. Besides the xD, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Elantra, Mini Cooper Clubman and Honda Civic were also cited.
•Hybrids proved reliable. Nine gas-electric models from different makers rated above average. Because of their two powerplants, gas-saving hybrids generally involve more complex engineering than conventional cars.
•Mixed record for trucks. Two Japanese brands, Toyota Tundra and Honda Ridgeline, were considered most reliable. All of the least reliable were from Detroit's Big 3, including Dodge Dakota.
•Luxury European brands improved. Mercedes-Benz did better, though a third of its models still have reliability issues. Audi and BMW also showed better reliability.
The editors called General Motors a "mixed bag." Its Chevrolet Malibu 4-cylinder, Buick Lucerne V-8 and Pontiac G6 4-cylinder scored above average, but the Cadillac CTS and GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook crossovers fell below average.
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