February 12, 2014 at 10:00 am

J.D. Power: 4-cylinder engines lead to dependability drop in 3-year-old vehicles

A rising number of smaller, more powerful four-cylinder engines led to the first decline in vehicle dependability in 15 years, according to J.D. Power & Associates’ U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study released Wednesday.

Overall vehicle dependability, which J.D. Power measures by determining the number of problems customers experience per 100 vehicles during the first three years of ownership, jumped to 133 problems this year from 126 in last year’s study. This year’s study queried about 41,000 customers in late 2013 who have vehicles from the 2011 model year.

The rise in complaints was led mostly by engine and transmission problems — specifically vehicles with four-cylinder engines, which now account for more than 53 percent of new-vehicle sales in the U.S. and could account for two-thirds of sales by the end of the decade.

Automakers are quickly swapping out many V-6 engines for four-cylinders in a race to meet federal fuel efficiency standards. “There are more out there, but they are getting worse in terms of problems,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power.

Sargent said the engines themselves may not be troublesome, though influential outlets such as Consumer Reports have panned turbocharged four-cylinders. Rather, he said, drivers may be accustomed to a larger engine and therefore find the smaller one “different” and report that difference as a problem.

Dependability is a major determining factor for consumers when considering their next vehicle purchase. About 56 percent of owners who report no problems with a vehicle within the first three years will stick with that brand; nearly one-in-four consumers will avoid brands that rank in the bottom fourth of the J.D. Power study.

This year’s study marks the first time since 1998 that the number of problems increased compared to the previous year.

Overall, Lexus ranked as the most dependable brand with just 68 problems per 100 vehicles, 36 fewer than the second-ranked brand, Mercedes-Benz. Cadillac, the third-best brand, took the top spot among domestics, with 107 problems per 100 vehicles. Buick (fifth, 112), Lincoln (tied for sixth, 114), Chevrolet (13th, 132) and GMC (16th, 133) were other domestic brands that ranked at or above the industry average of 133 problems.

Ford (17th, 140), Chrysler (23rd, 155), Ram (25th, 165), Jeep (28th, 178) and Dodge (30th, 181), finished below average.

Most domestic brands ranked at or near the same level they did during last year’s study, with the exception of Ram, which had 43 more problems this year and dropped from ninth to 25th.

General Motors Co. won eight segment awards, up from four last year. They included highest-ranked compact car, the Chevrolet Volt — and large light-duty pickup, the GMC Sierra. Toyota Motor Corp. won seven awards and Honda Motor Co. won six.

“Receiving more segment awards for our cars and trucks than any other automaker reflects our commitment to provide customers with the best overall experience in the industry,” Alicia Boler-Davis, GM’s senior vice president of global customer experience and product quality, said in a statement.

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC did not win any segment awards.

Problems that worsened compared to last year included excessive wind noise — a longstanding problem in the industry — and transmission fluid leaks, Sargent said.

The rate of problems declined in areas like brakes, tire pressure monitoring, paint quality and water leaks.

Sargent said J.D. Power plans to update its study next year, in part because more problems are becoming software-related, meaning automakers can fix a potential problem without lengthy delay or high cost.

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