- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

DETROIT (AP) — Ford supplanted Toyota as the leader of the pack in initial quality rankings, taking the top spot in five of 19 segments in the 2007 survey by J.D. Power and Associates, released yesterday.

Porsche again dominated the overall ranking of brands, averaging 91 problems per 100 vehicles as it had last year. That compared with a 2007 industry average of 125 problems per 100 vehicles. Last year, it was 124.

Ford Motor Co. earned segment awards for the Ford Mustang, Lincoln Mark LT, Lincoln MKZ, Mercury Milan and Mazda MX-5 Miata. Mazda is 33.4 percent owned by Ford.

Toyota Motor Corp., which grabbed the top spot in 11 segments last year, captured only four this year — the 4Runner, Sequoia, Tacoma and Lexus RX350/RX400h.

Ford’s Lincoln brand took third in overall nameplate rankings, averaging 100 problems per 100 vehicles. It was behind Porsche and Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand, which averaged 94 problems per vehicle.

Lincoln jumped from 12th in 2006.

“We saw dramatic improvement from Lincoln,” said Neal Oddes, J.D. Power’s director of product research and analysis. “It was a fantastic year for the Mercury Milan, with dramatic improvements in terms of defects.”

Overall, he said, Ford’s strength came from new models such as the Edge, MKX and MKZ.

Toyota had seen its list of quality leaders decrease in a quality study released Monday by Strategic Vision Inc., a San Diego-based market research company and consultant to automakers. Despite improving its overall quality, Toyota led in one category in that study — down from four in 2006. South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. led in five categories, outperforming its Japanese, European and U.S. competitors. Last year, it had no winners.

Joe Ivers, J.D. Power’s executive director of quality and customer satisfaction, said there’s no clear answer for Toyota’s drop. But several vehicles brought its quality performance down this year, including the Corolla, Prius and Lexus models.

It is worth noting, he said, that Toyota executives have been speaking publicly about their concerns about managing to maintain its historically high quality during a time of rapid growth.

“We’re not used to seeing their vehicles go backward from a quality standpoint, and several of them did,” he said. “It’s no big change, but when things go backward for Toyota, it’s unusual.”

In the J.D. Power survey, Hyundai fell from third overall to 12th. Mr. Oddes said redesigned vehicles such as the Santa Fe did not do as well as the automaker had hoped. On the plus side, the redesigned Elantra performed well in its segment.

Lincoln was followed by Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Toyota. Honda, with the fewest problems per 100 vehicles among non-luxury brands, improved in the ranking to fourth from sixth in 2006.

The most improved nameplates in the study are Land Rover, Saab and Mercedes-Benz.

Mr. Ivers said Mercedes-Benz’s improvements have been significant and speedy across its product line. It grabbed the top spot in three segments, and notable was its S-Class going from “worst to first” in a debut year.

“A lot of people avoid buying a vehicle in its first year of production, but Mercedes, with its S-Class, got everything right,” he said.

“When I look at this data, it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that Mercedes is trying to reclaim its traditional quality leadership position.”

J.D. Power also gave the Platinum Plant Quality Award for producing vehicles yielding the fewest defects to Ford’s Wixom Assembly Plant, where production ceased May 31. The Detroit-area plant produced the Lincoln Town Car, which averages 35 problems per 100 vehicles.

It was the first North American assembly plant to receive the honor since 1999.

For the study, Westlake Village, Calif.-based J.D. Power collected responses from more than 97,000 buyers and lessees of new 2007 model-year vehicles after 90 days of ownership.

This year’s survey included 228 questions and asked for information specifically about design and production, such as defects and malfunctions.

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