Korean Carmakers Lead, Japan Fades in Annual Quality Study

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Kia Motors Corp. and affiliate Hyundai Motor Co. widened their lead in U.S. new-vehicle quality as Japanese automakers fell below the industry average for the first time, according to a J.D. Power & Associates survey.

The two South Korean companies averaged 90 problems per 100 vehicles in the Initial Quality Study, released Wednesday, outpacing European, U.S. and Japanese competitors. Porsche was the top brand for the third year in a row, followed by Kia, Jaguar and Hyundai. The survey is based on consumer reports from the first 90 days of ownership.

“For decades the mantle of quality belonged to the Japanese,” John Humphrey, the research firm’s senior vice president of automotive operations, said in an interview before results were released. “That Hyundai and Kia, as mass-market brands, were able to surpass the quality stalwarts and the luxury brands is a considerable achievement.”

The survey, in its 29th year, is an industry benchmark that in recent years has shown a closing of the gap among automakers from different regions. General Motors Co. this year tied for the lead in vehicle-category winners, after ranking first by that measure in the previous two years.

By region, European companies were second behind the South Koreans, averaging 113 problems per 100 vehicles, while Japanese and U.S. automakers were at 114 each. The overall industry average was 112, an improvement from 116 last year, the Westlake Village, California-based firm said.

Kia has pushed globally to improve quality and “the results here today are testament to all that hard work,” said Mike Ofiara, a spokesman for the automaker. Hyundai said in a statement that the survey shows “how well we’re succeeding in connecting with our customers on all levels.”

Frayed Connections

For the third straight year, entertainment systems and connectivity technology such as voice-recognition systems were the top complaint, J.D. Power said. More drivers have smartphone-style functionality in their vehicles and they want it to work as well as an iPhone, whether it’s setting up directions or making hands-free phone calls.

The persistence of the technology issues isn’t a sign that carmakers are struggling to address consumer complaints, Renee Stephens, the firm’s vice president of U.S. automotive quality, told reporters. Rather, the penetration rate of those features has increased, she said.

“The systems aren’t degrading, but people are using them more,” she said.

Automakers are managing that transition with mixed success, and it’s obscuring gains in fit and finish, and engine and transmission quality, Humphrey said.

‘Sticking Points’

“Assembly quality continues to improve but the main sticking points are issues related to the technology in the car,” he said. “It’s a combination of it not working well and being difficult to get used to. But what’s important in the consumers’ eyes is that it’s a problem.”

The second-largest category of complaints was related to the vehicle exteriors, with issues such as hard-to-open doors, latches, hoods, wind noise, paint chips and scratches.

Rounding out the top 10 in average number of complaints were Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti luxury brand in fifth, followed by BMW AG’s namesake brand; GM’s Chevrolet; Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln; and Toyota Motor Corp.’s main brand and its Lexus luxury marque.

“Numerous independent surveys and studies continue to show that our vehicles remain among the most durable and reliable on the road today,” Toyota said in a statement. “We remain firmly committed to ensuring the superior quality, safety and long-term value of our cars and trucks.”

Category Winners

GM, Hyundai-Kia, Volkswagen AG and Nissan each had winners in four vehicle categories, followed by BMW and Toyota with three apiece. Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV both had two and Mazda Motor Corp. had one.

All four of GM’s winners were Chevrolet models.

“We are constantly challenging ourselves to market the highest-quality products for our customers,” Alan Batey, the GM brand’s global president, said in a statement. “Quality studies like this one tell us we are moving in the right direction.”

The Ford brand improved to 107 problems per 100 vehicles, from 116 last year. Honda Motor Co.’s main division averaged 111, worse than its 108 the previous year. Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz luxury brand had a score of 111, compared with 115 in 2014.

Only one of Fiat Chrysler’s brands, its Ram trucks, did better than the industry average, at 110. The Fiat brand was last again, even with an improvement to 161 from 206.

J.D. Power, a unit of McGraw Hill Financial Inc., collected responses from February to May from more than 84,000 buyers and lessors of new 2015-model vehicles.

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