By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Engine and transmission problems caused quality in the U.S. auto industry to slip for the first time in 16 years in a vehicle dependability study of owners of 3-year-old cars and trucks, falling from last year's record-high levels.
The industry's 2011-model cars, introduced in 2010, the year after sector sales hit a 28-year low during the recession, saw a nearly 6 percent decline in quality to 133 problems per 100 vehicles from 126 last year, according to the J.D. Power U.S. vehicle dependability survey released on Wednesday. It was the first increase in the average number of problems since 1998.
General Motors Co, the No. 1 U.S. automaker, received eight segment awards, tops in the industry, and all four of its brands finished above the industry average. Its luxury Cadillac brand was one of the biggest gainers in the survey, jumping 11 spots to rank as the third most reliable.
The biggest complaints among the more than 41,000 owners surveyed were about engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts and lack of power, but David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power, said a lot of that was due to lack of consumer familiarity with the smaller, less powerful 4-cylinder engines many buy now.
"The manufacturers are starting to recalibrate the engine and transmission to squeeze every last point-one mpg (miles per gallon) out of the vehicle to help them hit CAFE regulations," he said of the rising federal fuel efficiency standards.
"Some of the manufacturers accept that by doing that there's a compromise," Sargent added. "The consumers complain that the engine and transmission are not responding the way they want."
Engine and transmission problems rose by nearly six per 100 vehicles, accounting for most of the industry's overall increase, and the decline was particularly sharp with 4-cylinder engines, where the number of problems for every 100 vehicles rose by nearly 10, J.D. Power said.
While the automakers will adjust, the issue will continue because of the continued push for greater fuel efficiency, Sargent said. And this year's results are only just beginning to show the affect of another trend - the higher penetration of technology like voice recognition and navigation systems. The inclusion of those features will lead to even more complaints.
Toyota Motor Corp's luxury brand Lexus led in reliability for the third straight year with a score of 68 problems per 100 vehicles, down from 71 last year.
"The gap between them and everyone else is crazy," Sargent said of Lexus. "Mercedes is in second place and they're closer to the average than they are to Lexus. It's like everyone has been lapped by Lexus."
Vehicle dependability is important to automakers because fewer problems translates into more loyal customers. J.D. Power said that 56 percent of owners who don't experience any problems with their vehicles stay with that brand for their next purchase. That loyalty rate slips to 42 percent when three or more problems are experienced.
Sixteen of the 31 brands measured saw their scores decline or remain unchanged in the survey. However, the U.S. domestic nameplates improved at a slightly greater rate than imports, narrowing their scoring gap to eight problems per 100 vehicles with an overall average of 138, down from a gap of 10 last year.
U.S. auto sales rebounded almost 12 percent in 2010, the year after demand hit its lowest level since World War Two and both GM and Chrysler underwent government-sponsored bankruptcies and Ford Motor Co borrowed heavily to avoid the same fate. Chrysler Group is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
PORSCHE FALLS IN RANKINGS, INFINITI RISES
Following Lexus in the survey were Daimler's Mercedes-Benz brand (104 problems per 100 vehicles), Cadillac(107), Honda Motor Co's luxury Acura brand (109) and GM's Buick (112). Cadillac cut the number of problems per 100 vehicles by 21 from last year. Ford's luxury Lincoln brand held the top ranking in the 2011 study.
Rounding out the top 10 this year were Honda's namesake brand, Lincoln and Toyota's namesake brand (each at 114 problems per 100 vehicles), Porsche (125) and Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand (128). Porsche fell from second last year and saw its problems per 100 vehicles rise by 31, while Infiniti jumped 10 spots in the rankings.
The bottom five scoring brands were Hyundai Motor Co (169 problems per 100 vehicles), Chrysler's Jeep SUV brand (178), Tata Motors Ltd's Land Rover brand (179), Chrysler's Dodge brand (181) and BMW's Mini brand (185). However, Land Rover showed the greatest improvement by any brand, cutting its problems per 100 vehicles by 41.
Among individual models, the Lexus LS and Cadillac DTS luxury sedans both had the strongest dependability in the industry with just 62 problems per 100 vehicles, J.D. Power said. The DTS is no longer built, having been replaced by the XTS. Chrysler's Dodge Journey scored the biggest improvement, cutting its problems by 62.
GM, through its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands, garnered eight segment awards, including the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric for the top ranked compact car and the GMC Sierra for the top ranked light- and heavy-duty pickup trucks.
Sargent called GM's performance "impressive," but said the automaker will need to execute equally well with newer vehicles as it has with older models.
Toyota and Honda led in seven and six segments, respectively. The Mini Cooper won the compact sporty car segment.