Lexus leads as auto industry quality better than ever: survey

Toyota Motor Corp's <7203.T> luxury brand Lexus topped a U.S. vehicle dependability study of owners of 3-year-old cars and trucks as model-year 2010 vehicles improved to record-high quality levels.

The industry's cars, introduced in 2009 when the sector was hitting a 28-year sales low during the recession, saw a 5 percent improvement in quality, falling to 126 problems per 100 vehicles from 132 last year, according to the J.D. Power and Associates survey released on Wednesday.

Lexus led with a score of 71 problems per 100 vehicles.

"The continuous improvement in long-term dependability means consumers should have more confidence in three-year-old vehicles, whether they are keeping their current vehicle or shopping for a used car," David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power, said in a statement.

Vehicle dependability is important to automakers because fewer problems translates into more loyal customers. J.D. Power said that 54 percent of owners who don't experience any problems with their vehicles stay with that brand for their next purchase. That loyalty rate slips to 41 percent when three or more problems are experienced.

Twenty-one of the 31 brands measured improved their scores in the survey, with U.S. domestic nameplates improving at a slightly greater rate than imports. The domestics narrowed their scoring gap with imports to 10 problems per 100 vehicles with an overall average of 133, from a gap of 13 last year.

In 2009, U.S. auto sales hit their lowest level since World War Two when, adjusted for population, and both Chrysler and General Motors Co underwent government-sponsored bankruptcies and Ford Motor Co borrowed heavily to avoid the same fate. Chrysler Group is now controlled by Fiat .

Following Lexus, which led for a second year in a row, were Porsche (94 problems per 100 vehicles), Ford's luxury Lincoln brand and Toyota (each at 112), Daimler's Mercedes-Benz brand (115) and GM's Buick (118). Lincoln was the top ranked brand in the 2011 study.

Rounding out the top 10 were Honda Motor Co's <7267.T> namesake and luxury Acura brands (119 and 120, respectively), and Chrysler's Ram pickup truck and Suzuki <7269.T> (122 each). Mazda <7261.T> and GM's Chevrolet brand also scored lower than the industry average at 124 and 125, respectively.

The bottom five scoring brands in the survey were Volkswagen (174 problems per 100 vehicles), Chrysler's Jeep brand and Mitsubishi <7211.T> (each at 178), Chrysler's Dodge (190) and Tata Motors Ltd's Land Rover brand (220).

Among individual models, the Lexus RX had the highest dependability in the industry with just 57 problems per 100 vehicles, marking the first time in the survey a crossover or SUV topped the list, J.D. Power said. Chrysler's Ram scored the biggest improvement, cutting its problems by 52.

Toyota, through its namesake and Lexus brands, saw its vehicles earn seven segment awards, while GM had four and Honda, and its Acura brand, led in two segments.

(Reporting By Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)