Cars are getting more reliable, J.D. Power study shows

DETROIT -- Compact and midsize cars are showing gains in long-term quality, says J.D. Power, which is good news for drivers looking to downsize into more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Power's Vehicle Dependability Study, out Thursday, shows that long-term quality is up 5% industrywide. Improvements in small and compact cars made up more than half of the gains.

Neal Oddes, director of product research and analysis for J.D. Power, says it helps that smaller cars tend to have fewer gadgets that can fail, such as navigation systems, than do larger cars. Oddes also says owners of smaller cars are more accepting of problems such as wind noise — a common complaint among car owners — than owners of luxury brands.

Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for, says automakers began focusing on small-car quality even when small cars weren't selling well. Small cars made up 14% of the market in 2004. They now have a 25% market share.

"With the renewed interest in these cars, automakers were able to spend more resources on them," he says. "Compact cars of today are not the compact cars of 10 years ago. They rival in quality and equipment luxury cars of 10 years ago."

Power said customers reported 75% more problems after three years of owning a car than during the first 90 days. Five of the top 10 problems reported in early ownership — such as excessive wind noise and noisy brakes — also cropped up in later years.

Lexus came in at the top of the dependability study for the 14th year in a row. Last year, Buick tied Lexus for first place. This year, it came in sixth.

Mercury went from fourth place in 2007 to second place this year. Anne Marie Gattari, a spokeswoman for Ford, the parent company of Mercury, said the automaker's efforts at improving quality are starting to help its bottom line. Ford saved $1.2 billion in the past 18 months by paying out less to repair vehicles under warranty.

The overall winners by segment:

•Cars. Subcompact: Hyundai Accent. Compact: Toyota Prius. Midsize: Buick Century. Large: Ford Crown Victoria.

•Sporty cars. Compact: Mazda Miata. Midsize: Chevy Monte Carlo.

•Premium cars. Entry: Lexus IS 300. Midsize: Lexus ES 330. Large: Lexus LS 430. Sporty: Lexus SC 430.

•SUVs. Compact: A tie between Honda Element and Toyota RAV4. Midsize: Toyota Highlander. Large: Toyota Sequoia.

•Pickups. Midsize: Ford Ranger. Large: Toyota Tundra.

•Vans. Mercury Monterey.