Avoid the Brand-New Car Blues

When you buy a new car, you probably expect it to be trouble-free, but that isn't always the case. While new cars these days are generally of high quality, cars that underwent major redesigns for the 2011 model year or were introduced as brand-new models had a 10% drop in quality over last year, according to the recently released J.D. Power and Associates 2011 Initial Quality Study. The drop is particularly noteworthy since quality has improved in new or redesigned cars every year since 2007.

If you are in the market for a new car, you can reduce the likelihood you'll need multiple trips to the dealer to fix problems in the early days of ownership by following these tips.

Buy a brand whose quality is above the industry average. The 2011 Initial Quality Study assessed design-related problems, defects and malfunctions by surveying new-car buyers at 90 days of ownership. Then, it rated vehicles by an average of problems per 100 vehicles, or PP100. The industry average for 2011 was 107 PP100. The study identified 10 brands whose quality was better than the industry average. Lexus topped the rankings with 73 PP100, followed by Honda, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Porsche, Toyota, Infiniti, Cadillac and GMC.

Choose a car that has been produced for at least one year in its current design. The decline in quality that J.D. Power and Associates noted in this year's study that affected cars either underwent major redesigns or were newly introduced as 2011 models. These new cars had an average of 122 PP100 versus 111 PP100 last year. "Carryover models," or those that have been in production for at least one year in their current design, have better quality rankings than the prior year -- 103 PP100 in 2011 versus 108 PP100 in 2010.

If you must choose the newest designs, select carefully. Often the new cars that have undergone a major redesign or are entirely new have the most appeal to new car shoppers since they typically have the freshest looks and often new technology. Only seven of the cars in this category were selected as in the top three in their respective segments in the J.D. Power study. They are:

  • Acura TSX (entry premium car category).
  • Chevrolet Camaro (midsize sporty category).
  • Dodge Durango (midsized crossover SUV category).
  • Honda Odyssey (midsize van category).
  • Hyundai Equus (large premium car category).
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupe/convertible (compact premium sporty car category).
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan/wagon (midsize premium car category).

Remember that new technology can be troublesome. The largest category of owner complaints about their new cars was associated with new technology. Overall, problem rates for audio, entertainment and navigation systems were 18% higher this year than in 2010, and 28% higher than in 2009, according to the study. In some cases, there are actual problems with the functions of these systems. In other cases, owners perceive a problem, but the issue is user-error caused by a lack of understanding about how to use the system properly.

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