Buick and Jaguar tied for the top-ranked brands in the survey, knocking Lexus off its top perch. But Toyota and the Japanese automaker's Lexus and Scion brands topped 10 categories of vehicles with the best scores, including full-size pickup trucks (the Toyota Tundra) and subcompact cars (the Scion xA).
The study, which measures problems experienced by original owners of three-year-old (2006 model year) vehicles, was redesigned by the company for this year to include 202 problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. Overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles (PP100), with a lower score reflecting higher quality.
Keeping Cars Longer
"In the current economic climate, consumers are delaying new-vehicle purchases and keeping their vehicles longer—the average age of a vehicle at trade-in has increased to 73 months in 2009 from 65 months in 2006," said David Sargent, vice-president for automotive research at J.D. Power & Associates, which, like BusinessWeek, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies.
The 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 46,000 original owners of 2006 model-year vehicles. The study was fielded in October 2008.
General Motors' (GM) Buick brand has been in the top 10 for the past decade. It also has ranked high in Power's Initial Quality Survey, which measures consumer impressions during the first three months of ownership. Jaguar has been improving every year for the past several years—while Ford (F), which owned Jaguar until last year, had been on a campaign to improve engineering and manufacturing quality at the British carmaker. India-based Tata Motors (TTM) now owns Jaguar, as well as Land Rover.
The category winners are as follows: Honda Element was top compact multi-activity vehicle (MAV); Toyota Highlander was top midsize MAV; Toyota Sequoia was top large MAV; Lexus GS460 was top midsize premium MAV; Lincoln Mark LT was top large MAV (Ford is discontinuing the Mark LT); Ford Ranger is the top midsize pickup; Toyota's Tundra is top full-size pickup; Dodge Caravan is top minivan.
Winners and Losers
Among passenger cars: Scion xA is top subcompact; Toyota Prius is top compact; Buick LaCrosse is top midsize; Mercury Grand Marquis is top large car; Lincoln Zephyr is top entry-level premium car; Acura RL and Lexus ES330 tied for top midsize premium; Lexus LS430 is top large premium; Mazda MX-5 Miata is top compact sporty; Toyota Solara is top midsize sporty; Nissan 350Z is top compact premium sporty; Lexus SC430 is top premium sporty.
Of 17 brands ranked above the industry average of 170 PP100, 10 are luxury brands. The mass-market brands that scored above average were Buick, Toyota, Honda (HMC), Ford, Hyundai, Subaru, and Chrysler in descending order. Ford and Audi tied at 159 PP100, and trailed Honda by 11 PP100. Cadillac and Honda tied at 148.
Consumers taking note of the rankings need to bear a few things in mind. Some of the vehicles earning top scores will have been redesigned by now. The Toyota Tundra on sale today, for example, is completely redone from the one rated in the VDS. The rating, then, may be more useful in assessing the purchase of a used Tundra than a new one. Also, differing surveys don't agree. Consumer Reports, for example, does not recommend the Dodge Caravan, which topped the rankings among minivans.
While Power's ratings are useful and telling, the survey doesn't give the reader the ratings for all vehicles. That means a competitor to one of the category winners might have been within a few points of taking the category. Statistically, a few points are almost meaningless in separating two vehicles.
Buyer demographics can affect ratings as well. The average age for buyers of Buick and the Mercury Grand Marquis is above 60. And older consumers, history shows, do not grade their cars as tough as younger car owners.
When researching any vehicle, new or used, it pays to look at multiple ratings from Power, Consumer Reports, online services such as Edmunds.com and kbb.com, as well as enthusiast magazines like Car & Driver and Automobile.
Click here to see the full J.D. Power & Associates ranking.
Kiley is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau.