(USA TODAY) -- Toyota's Lexus brand was No. 1, Jaguar was most-improved and General Motors was the top domestic automaker in the closely watched 2012 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study released today.
It was the second-consecutive year Lexus led the study as the brand with vehicles that had the fewest problems in the first 90 days of ownership. Owners reported 73 problems per 100 Lexus vehicles, well below the industry average of 102. Toyota -- including Lexus and Scion brands -- also had the most top finishers in the ranking of individual car and truck models by product category. It had five.
Like a giant hungry cat, Jaguar leaped from 20th place among 34 nameplates last year to a tie for second place with Porsche. The famous British nameplate, now controlled by India's Tata Motors, cut reported problems to an average of 75 per 100 vehicles, a reduction of 39 problems in a year.
"It's the third consecutive years of improvement," says Jaguar spokesman Stuart Schorr when reached for comment. "It has been a conscious effort by the company to get the quality right."
General Motors made the strongest overall showing among U.S. automakers with a third place finish for Cadillac, up from ninth place last year and now ahead of Honda. GMC and Chevrolet also had fewer problems than the industry average, while Buick was just off the pace. GM had four top-three finishers in the rankings of models, one fewer than Toyota and tied with Nissan for second most top models.
The closely watched study also shows the competition has gotten tougher, as overall vehicle quality continues to rise:
The industry average improved 5% -- from 107 problems per 100 vehicles to 102 this year.
Of 185 individual models ranked in both 2011 and 2012, 65% improved their scores.
Of the 32 out of the 34 brands ranked in 2012 that also were ranked in 2011, 26 improved vs. five declines; one stayed the same.
Yet, some brands still drag at the bottom. Worst was Mercedes-Benz' Smart minicar brand and Fiat, tied with 151 problems per car. Then came BMW's Mini, with 139 problems per vehicle.
The result was not good news for Fiat's return to the U.S. after departing years ago under a quality cloud. But Chrysler Group's Dodge brand, dead last in 2011's study, improved to fifth from the bottom. While Chrysler and Jeep brands remained below the industry average in 2012, Ram trucks were ranked better than average.
The problems owners report in the study do not necessarily involve repairs. A problem can be something that works as designed, but disappoints the owner. Some makers have been dinged in recent years, for example, for new infotainment systems that owners find baffling, and for dual-clutch automatic transmissions that improve gas mileage but don't operate as smoothly as a conventional automatic.
Power said multimedia systems -- with their increasingly sophisticated audio, entertainment and navigation functions and more hands-free voice controls -- is now the top single category for problems. Reported issues are up 45% since 2006 for this category, even as other categories improved 24%, on average.
Power said smartphones have greatly raised what consumers expect from their cars. "Automakers and suppliers are working hard to meet those expectations with systems intended to make the driving experience safer, more convenient and more entertaining," said David Sargent, Power's vice president of global automotive. "However, the most innovative technology in the world will quickly create dissatisfaction if owners can't get it to work."
Such issues again bedeviled Ford, which dropped in the rankings to 28 out of the 34 brands. In 2010, Ford was the top-ranked non-luxury brand at fifth, then plummeted to 23rd last year, a drop Power attributed to owner dissatisfaction with the MyFord Touch infotainment system and a new dual-clutch automatic that owners found balky. Luxury stablemate Lincoln did better, but still ranked below the industry standard.
Ford officials blamed consumers still disappointed with MyFord Touch. Group Vice President Jim Farley said 89% of customers with the systems now have upgraded the systems with new software that Ford rolled out, and most are happy with the improvements, but he said the changes came after the J.D. Power survey period ended.
Volkswagen -- which has mounted a major effort to attack quality issues and raise its reputation as it strives to double U.S. sales by 2018 -- also took a hit for its dual-clutch automatic and a Bluetooth interface, among other issues. VW again was fourth from the bottom, although scoring seven fewer problems per hundred vehicles.
Marc Trahan, brought from Audi last year to be VW's new group vice president for quality, called that disappointing, particularly, he said, because VW's "internal data show a 17% to 20% reduction in warranty claims" so far in 2012. He said improvements are being rolled out, such as new transmission software. He also said VW's newest products, Passat and Beetle, just out as the study was being conducted "launched ahead of brand average and better than their predecessors."