Yawn. Detroit gets closer in J.D. Power's quality study.

Here’s a storyline I have heard before. The Big Three are narrowing the gap on quality. J.D. Power and Associates have just released their annual Initial Quality Study, which measures problem per 100 cars in the first 90 days of ownership. Detroit’s carmakers reduced problems by 10%. Their foreign foes reduced problems by just 8%. When measuring problems per 100 cars sold, no one will notice the difference.

And here’s the frustrating part. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have been improving quality for years. But they rarely beat Honda or Toyota in a brand-wide measure. And they don’t beat them in model-by-model comparisons often enough. Every year, they inch closer. But that doesn’t send the loyal Toyota Camry or Honda Accord owner to a Chevrolet dealer.

The top 10 went like this. Lexus was number one with just 84 problems per 100 vehicles and Porsche was No. 2 with 90 problems per 100. Cadillac was third with 91 problems. From there it went:

Hyundai: 95 Honda: 99 Mercedes-Benz: 101 Toyota: 101 Ford: 102 Chevrolet: 103 Suzuki: 103 Infiniti: 106 Mercury: 106

The industry average was 108 problems per 100 cars. Every brand not mentioned above did worse. That means all of the new Chrysler’s brands are below average. GM, for its part, did quite well. Cadillac was third among 37 brands. Chevrolet ranked ninth, but was close enough to Ford and Toyota that difference is just about meaningless. Mini finished last.

The problem for Detroit is that those overall numbers don’t mean so much. If car buyers compare models, they would find that 10 of Toyota’s cars rank in the top their in their segment, more than any carmaker. Ford had three models getting awards in their vehicle segments while GM had two and Chrysler had one, the slow-selling PT Cruiser.

That’s the difference in quality that consumers will see. They will shop for a mid-sized luxury car, for example, and see that the Lexus IS was best-in-class for quality. The Infiniti G-series and Cadillac CTS tied for second, but the Lexus won. To win buyers, that Cadillac needs to leap frog the Lexus. And the American carmakers need to start recording wins, not narrow defeats.

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