New cars launched for 2011 are showing lower levels of quality because of the increasingly complex technology that is being installed, according to an industry survey. 

The Initial Quality Study by California-based JD Power and Associates, a consultancy, reveals that the demands of producing more economical vehicles and more complex infotainment systems are taking their toll. For the past four years, initial quality - based on responses from 73,000 new car buyers and measuring the number of defects after 90 days of ownership - has shown improvements each year. But not this year.

The study, which JD Power has conducted for 25 years, found that the initial quality of launch models - those that are all-new or have had major redesigns - worsened by 10% to an average of 122 faults per 100 vehicles in 2011 from 111 in 2010. Conversely, carryover models - those that have had no significant redesign in the past year - have better initial quality than ever before. Owners of these vehicles report an average of just 103 faults in 2011, compared with 108 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 JD Power. "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, and no manufacturer can afford to give consumers any doubts regarding the quality of their latest products."

Only seven all-new or redesigned models rank among the top three of their respective award segments, compared with 17 models in 2010, and only one launch model receives a segment award this year versus five launch models in 2010. Just a quarter of redesigned models perform better than the outgoing previous generation model did in 2010, and eight all-new models perform above their respective award segment average.

JD Power highlights engine/transmission and audio/entertainment/navigation systems as the trouble spots and says that there are two primary causes for this quality decline:

  1. The first is high fuel prices and more stringent government regulations forcing manufacturers to design engine and transmission software to make their models as economical as possible. However, this sometimes leads to the engine or transmission "hesitating" when accelerating or changing gears, and consumers this year are reporting this as a problem more often than in past years.
  2. Car makers are also accelerating the introduction of multimedia technology into their models, including hands-free and voice-activation systems. Many consumers are attracted by this type of technology, which is perceived to enhance convenience and safety, but some vehicle owners report that their system is not intuitive and/or does not always function properly.Overall problems for infotainment systems in 2011 are 18% higher than in 2010 and 28% higher than in  2009.

"Clearly, consumers are interested in having new technology in their vehicles, but automakers must ensure that the technology is ready for prime time," said Sargent. "Successful companies will be those that can take this incredibly complex technology and make it reliable, seamless and easy for owners to operate while they are driving. There is an understandable desire to bring these technologies to market quickly, but automakers must be careful to walk before they run."

Lexus leads the overall rankings with a score of 73. Next is Honda, which improves to second from sixth in 2010, then come Acura, Mercedes-Benz and Mazda which improves to fifth rank position in 2011 from 18th in 2010. Land Rover posts the largest improvement in 2011, reducing problems by 47 to 123 from 2010.

   2011 Nameplate IQS Ranking

   Problems per 100 Vehicles

   Nameplate                            PP100

   Lexus                                        73

   Honda                                        86

   Acura                                        89

   Mercedes-Benz                                94

   Mazda                                       100

   Porsche                                     100

   Toyota                                      101

   Infiniti                                    102

   Cadillac                                    103

   GMC                                         104

   Industry Average                            107

   Hyundai                                     108

   Subaru                                      108

   BMW                                         109

   Chevrolet                                   109

   Volvo                                       109

   Chrysler                                    110

   Lincoln                                     111

   Audi                                        113

   Kia                                         113

   Buick                                       114

   Jaguar                                      114

   Ram                                         114

   Ford                                        116

   Nissan                                      117

   Jeep                                        122

   Land Rover                                  123

   Scion                                       123

   MINI                                        131

   Volkswagen                                  131

   Mitsubishi                                  133

   Suzuki                                      136

   Dodge                                       137