GM, Toyota top reliability study as tech issues persist

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are leaders in vehicle dependability, as the auto industry as a whole continues to battle problems with infotainment systems and other in-vehicle technologies, according to J.D. Power.

The California-based marketing information services firm on Wednesday said problems with infotainment, navigation and in-vehicle communication systems — collectively known as audio, communication, entertainment and navigation — have increased and now account for 20 percent of all customer-reported problems in its J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study of 2013 model-year vehicles.

“Everyone is struggling,” said Renee Stephens, J.D. Power vice president of U.S. Automotive, during an interview Wednesday. “When we look at voice recognition and Bluetooth, it’s pretty much the top problem for everybody in the industry.

“It’s an industry problem, and a reflection of the technology at that point and time.”

The increase in the technology problems, Stephens said, was a main reason for the industry’s 3 percent year-over-year decline in vehicle dependability, which J.D. Power determines by the number of problems experienced per 100 vehicles. A lower score reflects higher quality.

The problems most often reported by owners are Bluetooth pairing/connectivity and built-in voice recognition systems that misinterpret commands. Navigation system that are difficult to use and inaccurate navigation systems are also among the 10 most frequently reported problems.

Stephens said the problems consumers are having with in-vehicle technologies could be a red flag for them not to trust other technologies from automakers such as automated features and eventually autonomous vehicles, which automakers have invested billions in developing.

“Right now, if consumers can’t rely on their vehicle to connect to their smartphone, or have faith that their navigation system will route them to their destination, they’re certainly not yet ready to trust that autonomous technology will keep their vehicle out of the ditch,” she said.

Stephens said the technologies have improved on more recent models, based on data from J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study, which involves new vehicles over the first 90 days of ownership.

In the new dependability study — based on responses from 33,560 original owners of 2013 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership — the industry increased to 152 problems per 100 vehicles, up from 147.

Both GM and Toyota had all of their brands perform better than average, with several vehicles leading in their respective segments.

GM received eight segment awards, the most of any carmaker: Buick Encore; Buick LaCrosse; Buick Verano; Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Equinox; Chevrolet Malibu; Chevrolet Silverado HD; and GMC Yukon.

Toyota followed with six segment awards: Lexus ES; Lexus GS; Lexus GX; Toyota Prius v; Toyota Sienna; and Toyota Tundra.

Overall, brands from the two automakers accounted for five of the top six most dependable brands based on problems per 100 vehicles. Lexus, for a fifth-consecutive year ranks highest at 97 problems per 100 vehicles, followed by Porsche at 97; Buick at 106; Toyota at 113; GMC at 120; and Chevrolet at 125.

GM’s crosstown rivals had mixed results in the dependability study, with both Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Ford Motor Co. having a brand that ranked better than the industry average — but also a brand with the most problems.

Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge brand was the worst-rated with 208 problems per 100 vehicles, followed by Ford’s namesake brand not too far behind at 204.

Jeep, Fiat, and Chrysler also had more problems than average, while the Ram Truck brand ranked ninth at 129 problems per 100 vehicles. The Fiat 500 won the company’s sole segment award for city cars.

Ford’s luxury Lincoln rounded out the top 10 at 132 problems per 100 vehicles. But the company, which has been notorious for infotainment problems in recent years, did not have any segment-best vehicles.

The results for the Detroit automakers are better than their ratings in Consumer Reports’ annual brand rating and top pick awards released Tuesday, with Buick being the only domestic brand to be in the top 10.

Overall, design-related problems accounted for 39 percent of problems reported in the study (60 problems per 100 vehicles), a 2-percentage-point increase from 2015. These problems typically have nothing to do with a part being broken but the way an automaker implemented or designed it to work. Examples include infotainment software or transmission calibration.

“In most cases, there’s nothing mechanically wrong with the automatic transmission,” Stephens said. “It’s just how it’s calibrated, and that can be changed ... It’s part of the design when that shifts, compared to a check engine light coming on.”

The number of engine/transmission problems decreased to 24 problems per 100 vehicles this year from 26 in 2015.

The J.D. Power Dependability Study, now in its 27th year, examines problems experienced during the past 12 months by original owners of 2013 model-year vehicles. The study covers 177 specific problem symptoms grouped into eight major vehicle categories. The study was fielded from October through December 2015.

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