Toyota remains on top in quality, but gap narrows between foreign, domestic automakers

Wednesday, May 7th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ For the first time in five years, the average quality of new cars and trucks failed to improve this year, while domestic automakers continued to gain ground against foreign brands, according to a closely watched study of 2003 models.

Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. repeated as the automaker with the highest overall initial quality, recording an average of 115 problems per 100 vehicles, eight more than last year, according to the annual report released Tuesday from J.D. Power and Associates.

Toyota's Lexus brand was tops among all nameplates with 76 problems per 100 vehicles _ 27 fewer than No. 2 Cadillac.

``We're passionate about building quality into our vehicles,'' said Mark Templin, a Lexus vice president. ``This study is one of the leading indications that our efforts are effective.''

Among manufacturers, Toyota was followed by Porsche Cars North America Inc. (117), BMW of North America (124) and American Honda Motor Co. (126).

Those were the only automakers to score better than the industry average of 133 problems per 100 vehicles. That matched last year's performance. The industry as a whole showed steady improvement between 1998 and 2002, posting an average annual quality improvement of 6.7 percent.

``The initial quality drive for improvement among some manufacturers has been stalled by new-model launches that were especially challenging,'' said Joe Ivers, J.D. Power's executive director of quality and customer satisfaction.

The study, in its 17th year, is based on responses from more than 52,000 people who bought or leased new 2003 cars and trucks. Surveys were done in the first 90 days of ownership.

While domestic automakers trailed their European and Japanese counterparts by at least 19 problems per 100 vehicles five years ago, the domestics and Europeans are now equal. Both trail the Japanese companies by nine problems per 100 vehicles.

Among Detroit's Big Three automakers, General Motors Corp. fared best, with 134 problems per 100 vehicles. That compared with 130 problems last year. GM had two brands in the top five _ Cadillac (103) and Buick (112).

Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, said the results were impressive considering GM has launched 21 vehicles in the past year.

At the other end of the rankings, however, were GM brands Saturn (158), Saab (160) and, dead last, Hummer (225).

``Hummer is new and it's got some bugs to work out, but in general they're probably resolvable,'' Ivers said.

Ford Motor Co. had 136 problems per 100 vehicles, an improvement from last year's 143. DaimlerChrysler was next with 139 problems, two fewer than last year.