DETROIT (Reuters) - Consumers continue to be baffled by new technology such as voice-activated controls in their new cars and trucks, but overall, vehicle quality in the United States has never been higher, J.D. Power and Associates said on Wednesday.
Owner complaints about technology continued to hurt Ford Motor Co's standing in the influential annual survey of new-vehicle buyers. Ford fell to 27th from 23rd a year ago.
Just two years ago, before MyFord Touch and Ford's voice-activated Sync control systems were rolled out to more models, Ford was fifth in the survey, the best showing among non-luxury brands.
This year, Honda Motor Co grabbed the coveted spot as top non-luxury brand in the survey, which expanded to include 34 auto brands, up from 32 a year ago.
For the second straight year, Lexus, Toyota Motor Corp's luxury brand, topped the survey, which asks owners to rate the quality of vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership. The survey was conducted from February to May.
Hands-free devices in new vehicles not recognizing voice commands has become the most often reported problem cited in the survey, said Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates.
Until the last several years, Sargent said, hands-free controls were rare, but this year, more than 80 percent of new owners said their vehicles have some form of hands-free controls.
Sargent said that most consumers whose hands-free and touch-screen systems function well do like them. In Ford's case, he said, customers say they are attracted to some Ford models because of the high level of new technology in them.
"You could almost say that Ford took one for the team," said Sargent. "They went early, they went big and a lot of learning has come from that, not only for Ford but everybody else has benefited by Ford being the first to go over the top."
U.S. consumers and automakers are on a learning curve when it comes to voice-activated controls and other new technology in vehicles, Sargent said. Over time, quality scores will improve related to this issue.
The fact that many dealerships offer tutorials on how to use the new technology in cars shows that they are not quite as intuitive as many smart phones on the market, said Sargent.
However, he said, "the onus is on the automakers to make things simpler."
The good news is that the overall quality has never been better for new cars, and there are far fewer complaints about wind and road noise, engine problems, or other more traditional quality issues, said Sargent.
Overall on the list that includes luxury brands, Japanese automakers - with Honda in fifth place, Toyota running eighth and Mazda Motor Corp tied for 10th - were the top performers among non-luxury automakers.
Also in the overall rankings, Lexus, which scored only 73 complaints per 100 vehicles sold, was followed by India's Tata Motors Ltd's Jaguar and Porsche, both with 75 problems reported.
General Motor's luxury Cadillac brand was fourth.
Jaguar improved the most of any brand, jumping to second from 20th last year, based on marked improvements of its XJ sedan, Sargent said.
Sargent said that GM's showing was above the industry average for the first time since 2009, and that collectively, GM brands performed at the highest level in the survey's 26-year history.
Chevrolet's Malibu sedan won the title as best mid-size car in the survey, the biggest of the 21 model-level segments, said Sargent. Ford's Fusion and Honda's Accord ranked in a tie for second in the mid-size segment.
Toyota and its Lexus brand combined to have five models that claimed best-in-segment awards, the best showing among any manufacturer. They were the Corolla as top compact car and Yaris for the subcompact with the least reported problems.
While Ford's overall rating was down - one of only five brands to show a drop - it along with Lexus had three models named best-in-segment.
Cars winning their segments included Ford's Expedition large SUV, Mustang sports car, and Taurus large sedan, Lexus' LS premium car, ES "entry-level" premium car and RX premium SUV.
GM had four vehicles that won their segments: the Malibu, the Buick Enclave for mid-size crossovers or SUVs, the GMC Sierra LD as top large pickup truck, and the Cadillac Escalade as large luxury crossover or SUV.
Nissan Motor Co also had four vehicles named best-in-segment. They were the Nissan Frontier mid-size pickup truck, the Nissan Quest as best minivan, the Infiniti M-Series as highest-rated mid-size luxury car and the Infiniti EX-Series as best entry-level luxury crossover or SUV.
Among the non-luxury brands, Nissan with 18 fewer reported problems per 100 vehicles and Chrysler Group's Dodge brand with 13 fewer per 100 vehicles showed the most improvement.
Dodge was still only 29th, which was an improvement over last year's last-place 32nd place.
At the bottom of the survey were brands that offer subcompact cars, BMW AG's MINI, Fiat SpA, with its only U.S. offering so far the Fiat 500, and Daimler's Smart brand.
Sargent said this is likely because all three subcompact brands imported cars to the U.S. market that were designed for Europe.
Reporting By Bernie Woodall; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and M.D. Golan