Domestic automakers make gains in quality survey

Even in a year of financial stress, Detroit carmakers outpaced the industry in quality gains, J.D. Power and Associates said Monday.

The initial quality of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors 2009 brands increased 10% over 2008, beating the industry improvement of 8%. The initial quality study polls new car buyers 90 days after they've purchased their vehicles and asks them to grade their cars on repair problems — things that have broken — and design issues — such as whether the radio is easy to use.

"Even in the face of unprecedented challenges, the Detroit automakers are keeping their focus on designing and building high-quality vehicles, which is a precondition for long-term success," said David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates.

Lexus came in first in the annual study, overtaking Porsche, which had been in first place for three years. Overall industry quality improved for a second year, to an industry average of 108 reported problems per 100 vehicles, down from 118 in 2008.

Among notable changes, Jaguar dropped from ninth in 2008 to tied for 28th in 2009. That's mostly a statistical fluke, Jaguar says, because most of the buyers surveyed acquired a Jaguar XF, which had some initial problems that have since been fixed.

Chrysler and GM filed for bankruptcy-court protection this year after the steep drop in auto sales made their financial challenges insurmountable. With billions in loans from the federal government, both are attempting to recast themselves as smaller, leaner carmakers.

GM's budget issues have plagued it for longer than the recent crisis, says Jamie Hresko, the automaker's vice president of quality. But about five years ago, GM adjusted how it deals with quality issues and reprioritized quality concerns. Hresko says there has been no attempt to cut corners or take the cheap way out on quality issues.

GM's Cadillac came in third, behind Lexus and Porsche. Its mass-market Chevrolet brand came in ninth, two points behind Toyota's seventh-place finish. Hresko says that's statistically on par with Toyota.

"In the past, we haven't been able to reach Toyota's level," he says. "This is the first year we can say we've reached quality improvements on par with them. ... We are going to get the same level of results next year and move past Toyota."

Chrysler's Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands performed worse than the industry average, but showed improvement.

"What the J.D. Power IQS shows us is that we have some forward momentum," says Doug Betts, senior vice president of quality for Chrysler Group. "We have figured out how to improve vehicles in production and have taken aggressive actions to continue that progress."

At Hyundai, the mood was ebullient as the automaker came in fourth — behind luxury brands Lexus, Porsche and Cadillac.

Hyundai has been working to raise its quality image for more than 10 years, says acting CEO John Krafcik, after it began offering 10-year powertrain warranties.

"It's been a wonderful internal rallying cry ... and it's not costing us anywhere near what we thought it was going to," says Krafcik, noting the warranty is here to stay.

Top quality vehicles by category

These are the top performers and runners-up in each category of 2009 vehicles in the J.D. Power and Associates annual survey of inital quality (problems in first three months). Activity vehicles refer to crossovers and SUVs:

Subcompact car:

• Top: Toyota Yaris

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