New cars and trucks have fewer quality problems today than ever before -- but when they do, the most common complaint isn't mechanical, but a failure to communicate.
According to J.D. Power & Associates annual Initial Quality Survey of new-vehicle owners, problems with 2011 models after three months on the road fell 5 percent from the previous year. But complaints about in-car electronics systems, especially voice controls, surged -- knocking Ford, which has pushed its MyFord Touch screen and Sync into about 4 million vehicles, to 27th out of 34 brands rated, down from fifth two years ago and 23rd last year.
Anticipating the results, Ford said on Tuesday that a recent update of the software developed with Microsoft and sent to 377,000 customers would improve its scores next year. Ford says the technology that replaces radio and air conditioning knobs with a touch screen draws in new customers, and has even held training classes at dealerships -- but it hedged when adding the system to its key F-Series pickups by keeping some switches in addition to the screen, and it's too soon to know if the updates eliminate glitches like random rebooting.
Many other automakers have similar systems either already in production or arriving soon, in part because selling software can be more profitable than hardware, and also as a method for keeping drivers from distractions. J.D. Power says those changes are reflected in its results, with the most common complaint that hands-free voice recognition doesn't work.
For the second year in a row, Lexus owners reported fewer problems than any other brand, with 73 per 100 vehicles. The surprise winner in this year's results is Jaguar, which jumped from 20th to second, tying Porsche with 75 problems per 100. Honda and Cadillac rounded the top five.
The worst performers: Fiat and Smart, each of which sell just one model of minicar, and whose owners reported 151 problems per 100. The industry as a whole averaged 107 problems; Toyota, Honda and Nissan all rated above average, while GMC, Ram and Chevrolet were the only Detroit brands to do so.
Ford's woes didn't keep the Ford Mustang and the Ford Taurus from winning top quality honors in their classes. Toyota and Lexus each had two class victors as well -- the Yaris and Corolla for Toyota, and the ES 350 and LS sedans for Lexus. Other class winners included the Mazda MX-5, the Volvo C70, the Infiniti M-Series and the Chevrolet Malibu.
As mechanical defects have become rarer in new vehicles, the J.D. Power survey of 74,000 buyers has become more focused on subjective complaints; for more than a decade, the number one gripe from owners was wind noise. That approach does capture what makes people unhappy with their purchase, but can stumble because every buyer has their own definition of a problem. The Porsche 911 wasn't designed to hush wind noise and has no touchscreen entertainment system, but with just 44 problems per 100 cars, no vehicle in the survey had happier owners. Is it any wonder that several automakers want to let Apple's Siri system into their vehicles -- and take some of the burden of technology off themselves.