U.S. automakers saw sales take off in 2012 on the success of new products and improving quality.
But Both Ford and Chrysler have slipped in J.D. Power and Associates' 2012 Initial Quality Study while General Motors had its best ever performance in the study thanks to improvements at Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC.
The benchmark study, started in 1986, looks at problems reported by more than 74,000 purchasers and lessees of new 2012 vehicles during their first 90 days of ownership.
While automakers overall have improved quality, there have been growing pains with in-dashboard technology. Still the average number of problems per 100 vehicles declined from 107 to 102, J.D. Power said, for the best overall initial quality survey result since 2009.
Domestic U.S. carmakers still trailed Japanese and European brands slightly in overall quality.
Lexus was at the top of the heap with 73 problems per 100 vehicles; followed by Jaguar and Porsche, both with 75 problems per 100 vehicles. Cadillac had 80 problems per 100 vehicles, Honda 83; and Acura and Infiniti both with 84.
Toyota had 88 problems per 100 vehicles; Mercedes-Benz 96; BMW and Mazda 97; GMC, Nissan and Ram 99; and Chevrolet 100 -- all better than the industry average of 102 problems per 100 vehicles.
The Chevy Malibu, Buick Enclave, Cadillac Escalade and the GMC Serra LD had the best rankings in their respective categories.
With 116 problems per 100 vehicles, Chrysler fell nine spots to No. 25 and Ford, with 118 problems per 100 vehicles, slipped four spots to No. 27.
Other brands scoring below the industry average were: Audi, 105; Buick 106; Hyundai, Kia and Lincoln 107; Volvo 108; Subaru 109; Jeep 110; Suzuki 115; Scion 117; Land Rover 119; Dodge, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen 124 and MINI 139 problems per 100 vehicles.
Two European brands -- Fiat and smart -- were at the bottom of the initial quality survey with an average of 151 problems per 100 vehicles. But European brands often are low rated in design because of different preferences by American and European drivers, David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates, told The Detroit News.
"It's not unusual for a vehicle that was essentially designed for one market and brought to another market to perform not so well," he said, adding "but it's not really mechanical issues … it's design issues."
In-car electronics that run multi-media audio, entertainment and navigation by voice command has been a quality issue for some time. Owners reporting problems with factory-installed, hands-free communications devices have increased 137 percent since 2008," the study said.
"Until recently, this type of sophisticated technology was found primarily on high-end models" said Sargent in a release. "However, over the past few years, it has rapidly found its way into the automotive mainstream. For example, in 2012, more than 80 percent of owners indicate that their new vehicle has some form of hands-free technology.
"As smartphones become ubiquitous in the lives of consumers and are ever-more sophisticated, expectations about the complementary technologies being offered in new models will only get higher," he said. "Automakers and suppliers are working hard to meet those expectations with systems intended to make the driving experience safer, more convenient and more entertaining. However, the most innovative technology in the world will quickly create dissatisfaction if owners can't get it to work."
Before the study was released, Ford pointed out it had upgraded its bug-plagued MyFordTouch dashboard system but said the improvements are too recent to be reflected in the latest J.D. Power survey.
Brave new cars
Ford has opened a new lab in California's Silicon Valley to innovate and implement new technologies to make cars smarter.
Ford engineers may not be perfecting a science fiction flying car, but they are working on futuristic in-car data systems that will allow vehicles to avoid traffic accidents and even drive themselves.
"We view technology as more than just an impressive list of microprocessors, sensors and software. It is the enabler of a safe, intuitive and enjoyable time behind the wheel," Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president of Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, said in a statement.
Ford is not alone in tapping the expertise of scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley. General Motors' Advanced Technology Silicon Valley Office develops concept vehicles in California using new technologies.
"We've been innovating for more than century at Ford, but we acknowledge we don't have a monopoly on creativity," said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
"Our new office will complement our existing research efforts by allowing us to tap into the region that has been driving technology forward in recent decades."
Ford, which partnered with Microsoft to develop its SYNC in-car, voice-recognition infotainment system, was invited to participate in the museum's "Revolutionaries" lecture series.
"We want Silicon Valley to view Ford as a platform that is open, accessible and ready for their innovative ideas and technologies. We are looking for unexpected solutions for the future and we believe Silicon Valley is the right place to round out our global research organization," said Mascarenas.
He said right now the company started by Bill Ford's great-grandfather collects and aggregates data from 4 million vehicles equipped with on-board sensors and software to analyze how drivers use their vehicles and adjust to driving conditions, analyze how electromagnetic forces impact vehicles and collect feedback on road conditions.
"It's amazing how much data is out there," Ford said. "The question is how do we put it in a form that's usable?"
Ford admits all the data collected on drivers and their vehicles raises privacy issues. Drivers who may appreciate knowing when their tires are underinflated or when the brakes need replacement may not like their whereabouts being tracked.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this month indicated he would support laws permitted self-driving cars, as Nevada and California have done.
"I'd be happy to look at it," Snyder told the Driverless Car Summit in Detroit in a speech.
Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma are considering laws to legalize vehicles that use radar and other currently available technologies to steer themselves, accelerate and brake.
"We need to be careful of what's on the road but other states have gone forward," Snyder told news media at the event organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "We're in the motor city. We're the motor state and we should be thoughtful and move forward on things like that."
Power window switches investigated
The watchdog National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expanded an investigation into door fires involving power window switches to 600,000 Toyota Camrys.
That brings the number of vehicles in the federal probe that began in February to 1.42 million. A preliminary NHTSA review turned up 161 incidents of door fires, blamed for nine injuries, and the inquiry now includes 2007-09 Camry, Camry Hybrid, RAV4 SUVs, Yaris subcompacts and Highlander Hybrid vehicles.
All of the vehicles were assembled from September 2006 to August 2008 and used the same power window master switch design in the driver-side door armrest, NHTSA said.
Toyota said all of the injuries were minor with the most severe a blister to a driver's index finger.
NHTSA recently upgraded an investigation of electrical fires in driver-side doors of 340,000 Chevrolet Trailblazer SUVs after receiving reports of 28 fires. The federal safety agency said it and GM had received a combined 167 reports of the driver door module melting or burning -- even when the vehicle was not running. A short-circuit is the suspected cause of the problem.