If you are in the market for a late-model used car, look for Japanese-built vehicles, be selective of American brands, and buy European with caution.
That's the message of the 2012 vehicle dependability study from research firm J.D. Power & Associates, which looked at the reliability of autos sold during the 2009 model year.
Cars built in Japan were the most likely to lead their segments. Ford Motor Co. vehicles also did well. But anything built by Chrysler Group was at the bottom of the ratings, and of the European cars, only Mercedes-Benz scored above average.
Overall, cars are getting better. The J.D. Power scores were the best since the firm began measuring dependability of autos in 1990.
"Consumers are really winning," said David Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc., an industry consulting firm.
Shoppers of new cars shouldn't read too much into the study, he said, adding "it really is a tool for used-car buyers."
J.D. Power contacts owners of vehicles that were new three years before and asks them about the type of problems they have experienced in the last 12 months. Owners of 2009 model-year vehicles averaged 132 problems per 100 vehicles, down from 151 a year earlier.
But automakers are now packing vehicles with new technology that connects smartphones to Bluetooth systems, manages voice controls, provides navigation and offers new entertainment options, including access to social network sites. Older vehicles don't have such complex data systems, Sullivan said.
"It will be interesting to see how the new technology will hold back or help where the companies place in the coming years," Sullivan said.
German sports car maker Porsche was second at 98. Cadillac, the resurgent luxury division of General Motors Co., was tied with Toyota for third at 104, and Toyota's budget-oriented Scion nameplate was fifth at 111.
Chrysler's eponymous brand fared the poorest, scoring 192 problems per 100 vehicles. The automaker's other divisions also did poorly. Dodge was second to last at 183, Jeep scored 179 and Ram 174. British luxury car maker Jaguar was the only non-Chrysler brand in the bottom five.
Picking 2009 as the study year, the recession year when Chrysler and GM underwent bankruptcy reorganization — probably didn't help Chrysler, analysts said.
"These cars were being built right at the time when the company had been starved for money to invest in quality and new products," said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power.
Both Sargent and Sullivan said Chrysler's more recent models are scoring better in other ratings.
"We have made significant changes to our product lineup and everything else about our company's structure and the way it develops cars," said Doug Betts, Chrysler's senior vice president for quality.
Toyota collected the best scores in eight market segments, more than any other automaker in 2012. Its winners included the Lexus ES 350 in a tie with the Lincoln MKZ for entry-level luxury sedans. It won with the Lexus RX 350 for luxury crossovers, the Scion tC for sporty compacts, the Scion xB for multipurpose vehicles, the Toyota Prius for small sedans, Toyota Sienna for minivans, Toyota Tundra for large pickup trucks and Toyota Yaris for subcompacts
Ford topped three segments. The Ford Explorer tied with the Nissan Murano for top SUV, the Ford Fusion for passenger sedans and the Lincoln MKZ.
GM's discontinued Buick Lucerne topped the large car category, and its Chevrolet Equinox was ranked at the head of small crossovers and SUVs. Nissan Motor Co. also placed the Nissan Frontier at the top of the midsize pickup truck list. The Hyundai Genesis scored the highest for midsize luxury cars.
Although dependability measures improved, many consumers still have doubts about brands that previously had trouble producing reliable vehicles, Sargent said.
"During the past four years, models from Buick, Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai and Lincoln have achieved consistently strong levels of dependability, but still have relatively high proportions of new-vehicle buyers expressing reliability concerns," he said. "Negative quality perceptions are notoriously difficult to change."
The study is based on responses from more than 31,000 original owners of 2009 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. They were asked about their vehicles between October and December 2011.