Despite being caught in the undertow of Toyota's recall and safety issues last year, Lexus topped J.D. Power and Associates' much-watched Initial Quality Study released Thursday.
And Lexus' flagship LS sedan had the top ranking of any vehicle in the survey, which measures the average number of problems per 100 vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership.
Meanwhile Ford, which was the top-ranked non-luxury brand at fifth last year, fell to 23rd this year. It had 116 problems per 100 vehicles, up from 93 last year and worse than the industry average of 107 problems. Its Lincoln brand dropped from No. 8 to 17 this year, with 111 problems.
Power attributed Ford's results partly to two issues about which some owners have complained: complicated new MyFord Touch communications and other controls and a new dual-clutch automatic transmission that some owners have found balky and unpredictable. In a statement, Ford President of the Americas Mark Fields said the automaker acknowledges the shortcomings in MyFord Touch and has worked out the bugs.
Power said such new technologies were an increasing problem for all makers. While the overall industry average improved to 107 from 109 problems last year, the study's scores for models all-new or with major redesigns was 10% worse: an average of 122 problems, up from 111 last year. Carryover or lightly freshened models, by contrast, improved to 103 from 108.
Only seven all-new or redesigned models ranked among the top three of their respective award segments, compared with 17 models in 2010, and only one launch model was the top-ranked vehicle in its market this year, vs. five launch models in 2010. Just one-fourth of redesigned models performed better than the outgoing previous-generation model did in 2010.
"Exciting models with the latest features are crucial for winning over today's demanding consumers," said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. "However, automakers must not lose their focus on the importance of these models also achieving exceptional quality levels. Expected reliability continues to be the single most important reason why new vehicle buyers choose one model over another."
Said Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs: "Ford was not surprised by today's results; Ford knew that people were finding the MyFord Touch problematic. The engineers who designed the system are more technically inclined than the average user. Ford engineers need to take a step back to understand what is intuitive for the typical driver."
She added that all "automakers are tweaking their engines and transmissions to maximize fuel economy, but their experiments have taken their toll in terms of the driving experience, and quality ratings are suffering as a result."
Honda, Acura, Mercedes-Benz and Mazda rounded out the top five nameplates in the IQS survey, which is one of the most closely watched measures of quality in the car industry.
With Ford's fall, you have to go to ninth place before the first U.S. brand shows up Cadillac. Only it and General Motors truck brand GMC were above the industry average of 107.
The worst brands for quality? Dodge, followed by Mitsubishi and Suzuki. Still, the gap between best and last isn't huge. Lexus had 73 and Dodge had 137 per 100 vehicles, and the study doesn't take into account whether the problem was as simple as a glove compartment rattle or as bad as a cracked engine block. It can be anything an owner thinks is a problem or just doesn't like.
Honda won the most market segment awards, seven, for the Accord, Accord Crosstour, Civic (in a tie), Element, Fit and Insight (in a tie) cars and its Ridgeline truck. Lexus received four category awards for the ES, GS, GX and LS models. For a second-consecutive year, the Lexus LS sedan had the fewest initial quality problems of any vehicle in the industry with just 54 per 100.
(Charts with top three models in each car and truck category and a chart of all the brand lineups with their total scores as a brand can be found at driveon.usatoday.com.)
Saab Stops Paying Its Workers
The end appears near for Saab.
Like bankrupt royalty trying to keep up appearances and hoping to marry new money, the once-proud Swedish marquee kept saying a return to production was just around the corner as its owner, Spyker, danced with Chinese and Russian suitors.
But on Thursday the company said it has no money to pay its 3,700 employees. Not meeting payroll means production, essentially shut down since April 6, can't restart soon because suppliers will be reluctant to deliver parts without cash up front.
The company says this doesn't mean it'll file for bankruptcy. Spokesman Eric Geers told The Associated Press, "We're saying that we don't have funding to pay out salaries, but we're working day and night to find a solution. We're assuming we'll find a solution."
But Spyker, which has renamed itself Swedish Automobile, also said that while it is in talks for various deals, there's "no assurance that these discussions will be successful, or that the necessary funding will be obtained."
Saab's unions said Thursday they will make an official demand for payment. If it's not met, they could start legal action in Sweden that could force Saab into bankruptcy.
In recent months, Spyker CEO Victor Muller put together a deal to sell plant assets to a Russian investor for a stake and deals with two Chinese companies, Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile and Pang Da Automobile, for ventures to make and sell Saabs in China. The Chinese companies would get a combined majority stake in Saab, which need approval from Chinese, Swedish and European authorities.
The brand was sold last year by GM to then-Spyker for $74 million in a deal that left GM still holding preferred shares. GM bought Saab in 1989 and never was able to make the high-cost small brand profitable.
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