At first glance, you might think the chart has been turned upside down.
Buick and Jaguar, two brands not always top of mind in car buyers' perceptions of quality, tied for first place in the 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study by J.D. Power & Associates — knocking off Lexus, which had held or shared the top spot for 14 years.
Lexus came in next after the pair, just ahead of its sister Toyota tm brand in the annual study of long-term reliability announced Thursday. While five Japanese nameplates are in the top 10, a Japanese brand, Suzuki, also placed dead last.
J.D Power officials say they weren't surprised at the strong showing by General Motors' gm Buick and by Jaguar, sold by Ford last year with Land Rover to India's Tata Motors.
"Buick has ranked among the top 10 nameplates each year since the study was last redesigned in 2003, while Jaguar has moved rapidly up the rankings," said David Sargent, Power's vice president of automotive research.
The study is based on a survey of 46,000 consumers who were asked to check off all the problems that they have had with their 2006 model-year vehicles. The annual survey of 3-year-olds is closely watched by automakers as a guide for course corrections in quality.
Besides the overall listing, the study had some other surprises.
Even though Jaguar is tied for first place, sister brand Land Rover was second from last.
Jag's improvement comes after a concerted campaign to improve quality, including new electrical systems and wider use of lightweight, aluminum bodies, says Jaguar spokesman Stuart Schorr.
"Historically, Jaguar didn't have a great reputation for quality," Schorr said. "But the company has realized that to be a premium luxury brand, you have to deliver both on quality and dependability and on the emotional/performance side."
The survey shows that when it comes to Land Rover, "We have a lot of work to do," but the company did reduce the number of reported average problems for the brand from last year's surveys.
Though Buick tied for first, its GM corporate siblings were all over the map.
Cadillac placed a respectable ninth. GMC, Chevrolet, Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab, however, were below the overall average, even though some Buicks share common chassis or are built on the same lines. GM wants to sell Hummer and Saab, may jettison Saturn and would shrink Pontiac models under a restructuring plan submitted as part of its deal for federal loans.
Buick's strong showing is tied in part to a decision a few years ago to upgrade features, particularly those such as seals and sound deadening, which add to a vehicle's higher-quality feel, said Jamie Hresko, GM's vice president of quality.
Buick tied Lexus two years ago for the top spot in the same ranking. Last year, it was sixth.
The latest ranking "is a signal that perception doesn't necessarily align with reality," Hresko said.
Other GM divisions are going to catch up to Buick in the rankings over the next couple of years, he adds. GM customer complaints have fallen 48% since the 2006 models were built, he says.
Power's Sargent said some GM divisions may make poorer showings because they have different mixes of vehicles. Chevrolet, ranked 20th, has a lot of trucks in its lineup. "Trucks have a harder life" than cars, he said.
Among individual models, Power gave top rankings to the Scion xA for subcompacts, Toyota Prius for compacts, Buick LaCrosse for midsize cars, Mercury Grand Marquis for large cars, Ford Ranger for midsize pickups, Toyota Tundra for larger pickups and Dodge Caravan for vans.