For the first time ever Japanese automakers — long known for their high quality — have fallen below the industry average for initial quality, according to the the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Initial Quality Study released Wednesday. Meanwhile Korean and European brands accelerated in quality improvements.
Overall industry quality improved 3 percent from last year, with problems per 100 vehicles dropping from 116 to 112. The study, released at an Automotive Press Association meeting in Detroit, found that European brands for the first time outperformed Japanese brands. And domestic makes were rated equal in quality to the Japanese for only the second time in the study's 29-year history.
The study, which many buyers consult before purchasing a new car, looks at problems new owners have in the first 90 days with a vehicle. Initial quality is measured by problems experienced per 100 vehicles. The lower the score, the higher the vehicle quality.
"The improvement rate we're seeing on the domestic brands, European brands and the Korean brands have now outpaced what we're seeing on the Japanese brands," said Renee Stephens, J.D. Power's vice president of U.S. automotive quality, in an interview.
General Motors Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG each received four awards in specific market segments.
Porsche was the top brand for the third straight year, followed by Kia, which also was the No. 1 non-premium brand for the first time.
Kia saw its problems per 100 improve by 20, and it moved up from seventh place last year.
"All their models improved," Stephens said. "It was pretty significant. One big area they improved the most in is an area's everybody's struggling in: communication, entertainment and nav(igation)."
Kia spokesman Michael Ofiara said Kia's team members focused on quality improvement and elevating the ownership experience for customers. The Kia Sorento, which won the midsize SUV segment, featured a new infotainment system that Ofiara said was easier to use. The vehicle improved by 11 problems per 100 in the entertainment/navigation area.
"We're very proud of the results of the study," he said. "To be number two out of 33 brands is fantastic."
Jaguar finished third, followed by Hyundai and then by Infiniti, which was one of the most improved brands in the 2015 study, jumping to No. 5 from 23rd last year. Chevrolet was the top domestic brand at No. 7, followed by Lincoln at No. 8. Buick, Ford and Ram all finished above the industry average. Both Buick and Ford improved, with Buick jumping to 11th this year from 19th last year, and Ford to 12th from 16th in the 2014 study.
"Ford's another one where a couple years ago we were talking about MyFord Touch problems," Stephens said. "And that really brought their scores back significantly.... Now, those areas are showing up as an advantage and the most improved areas for Ford."
Entertainment and connectivity systems overall remain at the top of the list of problem areas for the third straight year, Stephens said. Voice recognition and Bluetooth pairing had the most problems, mainly because more systems are using voice recognition — 67 percent from 57 percent in 2013, Stephens said.
"So we're seeing problems go up, but if you look at only those consumers who say they have the feature, we actually saw problems go down a little bit," Stephens said.
Some companies and vehicles with voice recognition received few complaints. One of those is the Chevrolet Spark, which offers Siri Eyes Free, Stephens said. That system allows drivers to use a control on the steering wheel to have Siri send text messages or start a phone call.
Toyota and Lexus both fell out of the top five, with Lexus falling to its lowest level in the study. Stephens said they were hurt by problems in the audio, communication, entertainment and navigation areas.
Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister said infotainment issues exist across the industry. He noted the automaker's Toyota and Lexus both finished in the top 10. Three of its vehicles won their categories, and the Lexus LS had the fewest problems per 100 of any vehicle.
Ford spokeswoman Deeptie Sethi said survey results validate the company's quality progress.
"Recent quality improvements are a direct result of Ford's work to respond to customer feedback around specific issues and rapidly implementing solutions that improve quality, particularly in the area of telematics," she said.
Chevrolet had 10 vehicles rank in the top three within their segments, more than any other brand.
"Quality studies like this one tell us we are moving in the right direction," Alan Batey, global Chevrolet president, said in a statement.
GMC, Dodge, Cadillac, Jeep and Chrysler all had more problems per 100 vehicles than the industry average. Stephens said Chrysler's launch of the 200 hurt its scores, as consumers reported problems with the car's new nine-speed transmission.
Cadillac fell to 21st from 13th due to the launch of the new Escalade, Stephens said.
Chrysler tumbled from 12th place last year to third-worst this year, with problems per 100 increasing from 111 to 143 even as the Chrysler 300 took home a segment win for the first time. Fiat again finished last, though the brand had the most improvement, with problems per 100 vehicles dropping from 206 to 161.
FCA, in a statement, said 13 of 16 vehicles improved their initial quality scores, and the Dodge Challenger and Chrysler 300, which won segment awards, launched with numerous technology upgrades.
"We need to significantly accelerate our pace of improvement for the entire product line, because the industry isn't standing still," Matt Liddane, FCA North America's vice president of quality, said in a statement. "Our goal is to convert new customers into satisfied, loyal owners and we're committed to doing just that."
Ford had two segment winners, as did Fiat Chrysler.
Stephens declined to say which vehicle had the most problems.
J.D. Power Initial Quality Study segment awards
These vehicles were at the top of their market segments:
City car: Chevrolet Spark
Small car: Hyundai Accent
Small premium car: BMW 2 Series
Compact car: Nissan Sentra
Compact sporty car: Mazda MX-5 Miata
Compact premium car: BMW 4 Series
Compact premium sporty car: Porsche Boxster
Midsize car: Chevrolet Malibu
Midsize sporty car: Dodge Challenger
Midsize premium car: BMW 5 Series
Midsize premium sporty car: Porsche 911
Large car: Chrysler 300
Large premium car: Lexus LS
Small SUV: Hyundai Tucson
Small premium SUV: Audi Q3
Compact SUV: Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Escape (tie)
Compact premium SUV: Porsche Macan
Compact MPV: Kia Soul
Midsize SUV: Kia Sorento
Midsize premium SUV: Infiniti QX70
Midsize pickup: Toyota Tacoma
Minivan: Nissan Quest
Large SUV: Toyota Sequoia
Large premium SUV: Infiniti QX80
Large light-duty pickup: Chevrolet Silverado
Large heavy-duty pickup: Ford Super Duty
Source: J.D. Power 2015 Initial Quality Study