"Buick and Jaguar both lead the industry in nameplate performance," said Neal Oddes, director of product research and analysis at J.D. Power. "In terms of individual model performance, Lexus and Toyota still do very, very well."
The annual study measures problems experienced by the original owners of vehicles after three years. Suzuki owners reported the most problems among the 37 brands assessed by J.D. Power.
Despite losing its crown to Jaguar and Buick, Lexus still swept top awards in four segments, while Toyota's namesake brand took five awards. General Motors' Buick LaCrosse was J.D. Power's top midsize car, while Ford Motor's Lincoln brand took two awards. Chrysler, which took no segment awards last year, won top honors for its Dodge Caravan in the van segment.
Jaguar's sudden jump to the top from its No. 10 spot in 2008 was notable for a study that is fairly consistent from year to year. Oddes said the brand has made significant improvements across many areas.
"We see improvements all over the board with Jaguar," Oddes said, citing fewer reported problems with vehicle exterior, sound system and the overall driving experience. "The improvement at a nameplate level is significant."
Still, Jaguar, which Indian car giant Tata Motors bought from Ford in 2007, remains a relatively small-volume brand in the U.S. It sold just 14,000 vehicles here in 2008, while Buick sold 128,000.
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Oddes said this year's study was redesigned to exclude routine fixes from a vehicle's list of problems. For example, the study no longer counts tire or windshield wiper replacements as a reportable problem. The intended result is a study that focuses on actual glitches with a vehicle, Oddes said, though it also makes it difficult to make year-over-year comparisons.
"We cleaned up the survey to really try to focus in on things that are truly broken," he said.
The industry average was 170 problems per 100 vehicles, or somewhat less than two problems per vehicle. Last year, the industry average was 206 problems per 100 vehicles, but year-over-year improvements this year are much less pronounced when accounting for the changes in the study's methodology, Oddes said.
The most frequently reported problem was wind noise, followed by brake noise, peeling paint, brake vibrations and problems with a vehicle's lights, Oddes said. The problems have been fairly consistent from year to year, he said.
J.D. Power's dependability study surveyed 46,313 original owners of 2006 model-year vehicles in October 2008. The results are watched closely by automakers and are often used in advertising. Owners' opinion of a car after three years can be a major influence on their opinion to buy that brand again.
The firm also releases an initial quality study, which measures problems in the first 90 days of ownership.