Porsche, Jaguar, Saab and BMW were the only European makes to rank above the industry average in a key US industry study on long-term vehicle quality, Automotive News Europe said.

Mercedes-Benz, with 318 problems per 100 vehicles, finished below the average for the second consecutive year.

The study found that although there is near parity between US domestic brands and Europeans in terms of initial quality, substantial quality gaps appear between the domestics and the Europeans in long-term durability.

On average, models by US automakers outpace the Europeans by 49 fewer problems per 100 vehicles at three years of ownership.

Other European makes to rank below the industry average were Audi (318 problems per 100 vehicles), Volvo (330 problems) and Volkswagen (391 problems). Land Rover finished second from bottom with 441 problems.

The Lexus LS 400 had the fewest problems of all the vehicles in the study.

JD Power and Associates’ 2003 Vehicle Dependability Study found that the 2000 LS 400 had 104 problems per 100 vehicles — far fewer than the industry average of 273 problems per 100 vehicles.

“It does well right off the assembly line, and it does well three years later,” says Brian Walters, JD Power’s senior director of product research.

Lexus grabbed the No. 1 spot of all the makes in the study — something it has done for nine consecutive years — followed by Nissan’s Infiniti brand.

Surprisingly, Buick took the No. 3 position, the only Big 3 brand to make the top five.

JD Power would not reveal which vehicle had the most problems, though KIA finished at the bottom of the rankings of makes, with 509 problems per 100 vehicles.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that the worst model is a Kia,” Walters says.

Vehicle dependability is an important issue for car buyers. While about one-third of buyers cite “defect-free when new” as a reason to buy a car, more than half cite “long-term durability” as their purchase driver.

JD Power decided to shorten the survey’s time-span from five to three years of ownership. Joe Ivers, a JD Power partner, says that while the five-year survey gave a good indication of long-term durability, it came so late in the ownership cycle that most vehicles already had been redesigned, thus being less useful to automakers.

Having the survey cover three years allows automakers to change many vehicles still being produced as well as to incorporate the changes into a vehicle’s redesign.

“The longer the term of the survey, of course, the more pure the data, but a lot of the vehicles surveyed were already obsoleted,” Ivers says.

To improve the quality of the survey data, the Westlake Village, California, market research company increased the sample size to 55,000 respondents — up from 30,000 last year — and split the results into low-mileage and high-mileage categories. Another first: Rankings include makes that finished below the industry average.

“The problems that we focus on are symptoms,” Walters says of the areas studied. “We don’t ask the consumer what went wrong with their vehicle because they may not know.”

Consumers’ biggest complaints were what Walters categorised as “braking-related issues — having to replace brake pads and rotors at three years. Most owners say, ‘I’m having to replace this component way before I expected to.’ ”

Besides Buick, four other General Motors makes — Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Saturn — finished at or above the industry average.
Lincoln and Mercury also finished above the industry average, Automotive News Europe said.