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Tech troubles plague auto reliability, survey says

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Drivers continue to report problems with infotainment systems in new cars and trucks, according to Consumer Reports' Auto Reliability Survey.

Of all the areas in its annual survey, the category including in-car electronics generated more complaints from owners of 2014 models than any other category.

"It's this plague that is, like, infecting across the industry," Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports, told reporters during an Automotive Press Association meeting Monday in Detroit.

In recent years, technology flaws in infotainment, hands-free voice recognition and Bluetooth systems have caused major headaches for automakers. Common issues from past surveys included unresponsive touch screens and problems pairing phones.

First-year models from Infiniti, Jeep, Fiat, Ram, Cadillac, Ford and Honda have all had significant problems with infotainment bugs and glitches, according to the survey.

Michelle Krebs, AutoTrader.com senior analyst, said in-vehicle technologies need to improve because they are a serious consideration for car buyers.

"The industry doesn't do it very well," she said. "There's a lot of work to be done there."

Some of the worst offenders of faulty infotainment systems in recent years are improving. While not trouble-free, updates to Ford and Lincoln's MyTouch systems have made them less troublesome. When introduced, the 2011 Ford Explorer had a 10 percent infotainment complaint rate and peaked at 28 percent. The 2014 Explorer's has a 3 percent complaint rate.

In-vehicle tech issues aren't the only reliability issues plaguing automakers. Problems with transmissions with more gears, turbochargers and other traditional drivetrain problems haven't disappeared.

Buick was the only domestic brand to make the top 10. Japanese brands Lexus, Toyota and Mazda topped the list, followed by Honda, Audi and Buick.

Japanese and Korean brands historically perform well in the survey, while European and American brands fluctuate depending on how long they've been on the market. Cars and trucks that tend to do well have been in the market a few years and have corrected serious problems.

General Motors Co. for a second straight year led Detroit automakers on the annual survey but was still below the industry average. Ford Motor Co. improved from the bottom of the survey last year to "worse than average." Chrysler Group LLC plummeted to "much worse than average," with four brands rated at the very bottom of the 28-brand reliability rankings.

Chrysler performed the worst of any automaker, with Fiat, Jeep, Ram and Dodge brands at the bottom of this year's list. The company's namesake brand ranked 22, down four places from a year ago.

Fisher said Chrysler is combating problems with its UConnect infotainment system and powertrain technologies, including new transmissions. All of Chrysler's brands declined compared to a year ago, with the Fiat 500L ranking as the least reliable vehicle in the survey.

Krebs said Chrysler's low ratings are somewhat concerning since the company is performing well: "They are doing really well in sales, but if consumers have a bad experience in terms of reliability, will they have repeat customers?"

Chrysler, in a statement, said it values customer feedback and uses it to improve its vehicles.

Following powertrain and technology problems pushing Ford to the bottom of the reliability rankings in recent years, the company is finally on the "up-and-up," Fisher said. "They are still worse than average, but they are not bottom of the barrel."

Ford's namesake brand ranked 23 in the survey, while its luxury Lincoln brand improved the most of any brand, up 12 spots to 15.

The Dearborn automaker, in a statement, attributed its improved results to responding to consumer feedback in recent years.

Besides Buick, all of GM's brands ranked in the middle of the pack: Cadillac ranked 18, up seven spots; GMC ranked 19, down 10 places; and Chevrolet declined four places to 21.

Scott Young, GM director of global vehicle quality and customer experience strategy, said the Detroit automaker is "pleased" with the results and continues to enhance its products.