U.S. auto industry quality slips for first time in 16 years: survey

Wed Feb 12, 2014 10:06am EST
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By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Engine and transmission problems caused quality in the U.S. auto industry to slip for the first time in 16 years in a vehicle dependability study of owners of 3-year-old cars and trucks, falling from last year's record-high levels.

The industry's 2011-model cars, introduced in 2010, the year after sector sales hit a 28-year low during the recession, saw a nearly 6 percent decline in quality to 133 problems per 100 vehicles from 126 last year, according to the J.D. Power U.S. vehicle dependability survey released on Wednesday. It was the first increase in the average number of problems since 1998.

General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote), the No. 1 U.S. automaker, received eight segment awards, tops in the industry, and all four of its brands finished above the industry average. Its luxury Cadillac brand was one of the biggest gainers in the survey, jumping 11 spots to rank as the third most reliable.

The biggest complaints among the more than 41,000 owners surveyed were about engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts and lack of power, but David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power, said a lot of that was due to lack of consumer familiarity with the smaller, less powerful 4-cylinder engines many buy now.

"The manufacturers are starting to recalibrate the engine and transmission to squeeze every last point-one mpg (miles per gallon) out of the vehicle to help them hit CAFE regulations," he said of the rising federal fuel efficiency standards.

"Some of the manufacturers accept that by doing that there's a compromise," Sargent added. "The consumers complain that the engine and transmission are not responding the way they want."

Engine and transmission problems rose by nearly six per 100 vehicles, accounting for most of the industry's overall increase, and the decline was particularly sharp with 4-cylinder engines, where the number of problems for every 100 vehicles rose by nearly 10, J.D. Power said.

While the automakers will adjust, the issue will continue because of the continued push for greater fuel efficiency, Sargent said. And this year's results are only just beginning to show the affect of another trend - the higher penetration of technology like voice recognition and navigation systems. The inclusion of those features will lead to even more complaints.   Continued...

A man looks at his watch while waiting for hours to get fuel from a gas station in the New York City borough of Queens on November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif