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Volkswagen makes owners happy, JD Power study finds

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Volkswagen grabbed the No. 1 spot in the latest J.D. Power APEAL study, a survey that focuses on the things that surprise and delight carbuyers rather than the problems that frustrate them. The German maker's Porsche and Audi brands topped the annual report, while five individual VW Group models led their individual product segments.

General Motors and Ford followed closely. In fact, GM's Chevrolet division had more segment winners than any other brand—a sudden surge that echoed Chevy's unexpectedly strong performance in J.D. Power's closely watched Initial Quality Survey, or IQS, last month.

(Read more: Impala top rated by Consumer Reports)

Another surprise was the poor performance of Toyota. Though its premium Lexus division landed in fifth place in the latest APEAL study, the flagship brand came in fifth from the bottom, two spots lower than the Japanese maker's youth-oriented Scion division.

Perhaps less unexpected was the continued dominance of well-equipped luxury vehicles over mainstream brands and products. Only a handful of nonluxury brands scored above the industry average, and none landed in the Top 10.

"Appealing vehicles are simply good news for both consumers and automakers," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. "Even within the same vehicle segment, consumers are willing to spend substantially more on vehicles that they find attractive, provide the performance and utility they are looking for and have well-executed interiors. These vehicles also sell more quickly."

While Chevrolet, and GM on the whole, landed near the top of both the new 2013 APEAL study and last month's IQS, the latest data show that manufacturers that deliver high quality don't necessarily surprise and delight their customers. And as the quality gap continues to narrow, the significance of "things-gone-right" surveys, like APEAL continues to grow.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Ford Slam Dunks 2nd Quarter, Beating Analysts)

That could be important for makers such as VW and GM, which have traditionally lagged Asian leaders in terms of quality, as well as Ford, which has had a series of quality setbacks over the past several years.

VW's brands have been gaining momentum in APEAL—though the chart-topping Porsche brand also led on the things-gone-wrong IQS study last month. Porsche scored 884 out of a possible 1,000 points, according to Power. And its Boxster and Cayenne models led their individual segments. Audi, which came in second, with 857 points, also had a segment winner with the newly revived allroad model.

The Volkswagen brand, scoring 809 points, itself came in slightly above the industry average of 795. But it also earned two segment firsts with the GTI and Passat models.

GM landed four segment winners, three of them wearing the Chevrolet Bowtie: the Avalanche, Sonic and Volt models—all of which took segment firsts last year, too. Chevrolet itself landed below the industry average, with a score of 788. Only two GM brands actually came in above the industry average: Cadillac with 841, and Buick at 800.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: A 130 mph mower? A luxury golf cart? Yep, say Honda, Mercedes)

Ford was also below the industry average as a brand, at 790, while the Lincoln brand was No. 9, at 835. Nonetheless, Ford had two segment winners: the F-Series and the Mustang.

Nissan also had two winners: the Murano and Armada. The Japanese maker's Infiniti brand rounded out the Top 10 with a score of 831. The Nissan brand was another mainstream marque landing below the industry average, at 790.

The Lexus luxury brand came in fifth, maintaining its traditional, upper-tier ranking. Its flagship LS model beat out European competitors such as the Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the Large Premium Car segment.

But Toyota itself fared far more poorly, with a score of just 776, and did not have a single segment winner. That reflects frequent criticism of the Japanese giant, which is often accused of churning out plain-vanilla products. That appears to be a factor behind this year's unexpected sales slip by products including the Toyota Camry and Prius models.

Global CEO Akio Toyoda has promised to put more "passion" into Toyota's future products, something that helped earn kudos for one of its latest models, the recently redesigned Avalon sedan.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Sales slipping, Toyota cuts prices, boosts incentives on Camry)

Underscoring the fact that consumers are often delighted by factors like performance, design or interior features, even if a vehicle has some quality problems, the Fiat 500 was the segment winner in the City Car category—though it helped that there were no other competitors in that segment this year.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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