After years of improving car reliability, automakers have shifted into reverse while attempting to exact better fuel economy and add in-dash technology, J.D. Power & Associates reported in its 2014 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study.
Owners of 3-year-old vehicles reported more problems than in the same study from the prior year, the automotive research firm said Wednesday.
It was the first increase in problems reported since 1998. The slip in quality might be the first sign in a trend toward declining reliability in cars, according to the firm, whose research identified transmissions and infotainment systems as key trouble spots.
"There is almost inevitably a trade-off between designing and programming a vehicle for fuel economy and how well it drives — and consumers want both," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "Increases in such problems as engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts and lack of power indicate that this is a continuing challenge."
Moreover, J.D. Power has seen complaints about technology in cars increase as it surveys people who recently purchased new vehicles.
"If after three years of ownership drivers are still having trouble operating their navigation or entertainment systems, they are going to report it," Sargent said.
The latest dependability results matched the experiences of Karl Brauer, who regularly tests cars as an analyst at auto information company
"The automakers are working so hard now to get fuel economy out of these cars, adding technology to the four-cylinder engines and more gears to the transmissions, and there are more issues that need to be figured out," Brauer said.
Cars that once came equipped with four-speed or six-speed automatic transmissions now have eight or nine speeds, he said.
"It is really hard to tune. You have all these gears in there, and the transmission has to pick the right one for every situation, whether you are going up a hill or passing another vehicle," Brauer said.
J.D. Power found that more than 41,000 original owners of 2011 model-year vehicles reported an average of 133 problems per 100 vehicles, a 6% increase from the 126 problems in the previous study. Engine and transmission issues were responsible for almost all of the gain. Four-cylinder engines had more complaints than larger engines.
Still, some manufacturers stood out for how few problems their cars experienced.
Lexus was the most reliable car brand for the third consecutive year. Vehicles produced by Toyota's luxury brand had just 68 problems per 100 vehicles — almost half the average.
Mercedes-Benz ranked a distant second, with 104 problems, followed by Cadillac (107), Acura (109) and Buick (112).
The worst brands were Mini (185), followed by Dodge (181), Land Rover (179), Jeep (178) and Hyundai (169).
Ford ranked below average, with 140 problems per 100 vehicles. Its Lincoln division did better at just 114, good for seventh place.
All of the Chrysler brands scored well below average.
GM vehicles ranked at the top of eight automotive segments, more than any other automaker in 2014. Those vehicles were: the Buick Lucerne, which has since been discontinued; Cadillac's DTS and Escalade; Chevrolet's Camaro and Volt; and GMC's Sierra heavy-duty truck, Sierra light-duty pickup and GMC Yukon.
Toyota had seven awards: the Lexus ES, GS, LS, RX; Toyota's Camry and Sienna; and the Scion xB.
Honda had six vehicles at the top of a model segment: the Acura RDX; and Honda CR-V; Crosstour; Element, which also has been discontinued; Fit; and Ridgeline.
The rankings are important to consumers, Sargent said.
"We see that brands with lower dependability are likely to be shut out of a significant piece of the market," Sargent said. "Many consumers will not even consider purchasing one of their vehicles because of concerns about its likely reliability."
This was evident when J.D. Power matched its reliability ratings with the vehicle trade-in data it also collects. The results demonstrated that 56% of owners who reported no problems purchased the same brand when they went back into the car market. That dropped to 42% among owners who reported three or more problems.
"This is real money for the automakers," Sargent said. "This is not intentions or theory. We are following what consumers purchased. The relationship is pretty profound."