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While Japanese-branded vehicles continue to dominate in terms of long-term vehicle quality, the Europeans have lost their edge over the US domestic-branded vehicles, according to the JD Power and Associates 2003 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS).

The 2003 study, which measures problems reported by original owners of 2000 model-year vehicles in the United States at three years of ownership, finds that although there is near parity between US domestic models and European brands in terms of initial quality, substantial quality gaps appear between the domestics and the Europeans in long-term durability. On average, models made by US car makers outpace the Europeans by 49 problems per 100 (PP100) vehicles at three years of ownership.

“Conventional wisdom said that dependability was the property of the Japanese and Europeans,” said JD Power and Associates executive director of quality/customer satisfaction, Joe Ivers. “While that’s still true for automakers like Toyota and Honda, it’s no longer the case for many of the Europeans. Porsche, Jaguar, Saab and BMW perform well above the industry average in dependability, but many other European brands are bought based on a reputation for long-term quality and fall far short of even the average. This is in stark contrast to the results of the first VDS, conducted in 1990, when Mercedes-Benz led the industry.”

Toyota boasts nine models with top segment rankings, followed by Ford and General Motors with three each, and American Honda and Porsche Cars North America with one each. Lexus is the top-ranked nameplate for the ninth consecutive year. Porsche leads the corporate ranking, while Toyota leads among the full-range vehicle manufacturers. General Motors is the only domestic manufacturer to rank above the industry average in the corporate rankings, with 12 models finishing in the top three of the segment rankings, second only to Toyota’s 13.

Other notable performances in the 2003 results include Subaru and GMC [GM’s North American light truck brand], which both performed considerably better when measured at three years in VDS than when they were measured at 90 days of ownership. At the other end of the spectrum is Mercedes-Benz, which experiences the largest quality gap between initial quality and long-term quality measurements. Also deteriorating more rapidly than the average vehicle are Audi and Volvo.

Some problems that occur much more frequently as vehicles age include excessive brake wear, air conditioning system issues, wind noise and the replacement of components not called for under the normal maintenance schedule. New problems that arise as vehicles age include issues with shock absorbers and suspension struts; faded, cracked or worn materials; worn or broken mouldings; cracked and peeling paint; and various fluid leaks.

Long-term quality measures have a big consumer impact. Among new vehicle buyers, 52% indicate that long-term durability is among their most important factors in choosing a vehicle. Further, among used vehicle buyers, 42% report buying a used vehicle instead of a new vehicle because they felt that the quality of the used vehicle is as good as a new one. This is particularly true among luxury used-vehicle buyers.

“With the proliferation of long-term warranties being offered on new vehicles and the increasing popularity of manufacturer-sponsored used vehicle certification programs, long-term quality issues are critical to manufacturers and their bottom lines,” said Ivers. “Manufacturers must align themselves with consumer expectations for durability. Long-term quality issues have a substantial impact on customer retention, even among ‘got to have’ models that seem impervious to quality issues at their introductions.”

The 2003 Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 55,000 original owners of 2000 model-year cars and light trucks. The study covers 147 specific problem symptoms grouped into nine major vehicle systems. For the first time, the study reviews models at three years of ownership instead of the historical four- to five-year period in order to better support manufacturer product improvement efforts in next-generation replacement models.