THE global financial crisis appears to have had a silver lining for car buyers, with an influential US quality survey finding that cars built during the period are the most reliable on record.
The 2012 JD Power survey on vehicle dependability, which looked at cars built during 2009, found that vehicle quality improved by 13 per cent over cars produced the year before. The 2012 industry average of 132 problems per 100 vehicles was down on 151 problems in 2011.
And the study, which has been carried out annually since 1990, found that 2009 was the best year on record for dependability.
Global car production in 2009 was the lowest since 2003, dropping 12.4 per cent from 2008.
Top of the latest dependability survey list was Lexus, which had just 86 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with the average of 132. The luxury offshoot was one of three Toyota brands in the top five, with the main brand ranking fourth and youth brand Scion - which is not sold here - ranking fifth.
Toyota picked up awards in eight vehicle segments, with the Lexus RX350, Toyota Prius and Yaris the standouts.
Similar figures are not available in Australia because the local car companies refuse to make industry quality surveys public. But confidential survey figures obtained by the Herald in 2006 suggest the local results largely follow US trends.
The GFC may have led General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy protection, but it had a largely positive effect on the build quality of American vehicles, which has been notoriously slipshod over the years.
GM's Cadillac brand ranked third, while Lincoln, Ford and Buick all finished in the top 10. Overall, US brands closed the gap on imports, although they still have more problems.
The same couldn't be said of Chrysler, though, with its Ram, Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler brands filling out the bottom four spots in the survey. Land Rover, which traditionally finishes at the bottom of the pile in these quality surveys, was not included this year.
The biggest surprise is the continuing poor performance of luxury European brands in the survey. Only Porsche and Mercedes-Benz finished above the industry average, with Volvo, Audi, BMW, Mini and Jaguar all performing below par.
Volkswagen also rated poorly, finishing 26th out of 32 brands surveyed.
In a statement released with the survey results, David Sargent, JD Power's vice president of global automotive operations, says that despite the improvement of some US brands, the stigma of poor quality still hung over the local industry, with customers remaining wary.
"Building vehicles with high levels of dependability is obviously a necessary element in reshaping consumer perceptions. Negative quality perceptions are notoriously difficult to change, and it takes considerable time, but effectively communicating improvements in dependability may reduce concerns, and by extension, help new-vehicle sales," he says.
JD Power recommends that buyers update themselves on quality survey results, as many perceptions based on historical anecdotes are now out of date.
A case in point is Hyundai, which had a lamentable quality reputation in the late '80s and '90s nineties, but now regularly ranks above the industry average for quality and dependability.
The Vehicle Dependability Survey is based on responses from more than 30,000 car owners who have owned their car for three years. JD Power also does an Initial Quality Survey which looks at problems encountered in the first 90 days of ownership.
The company says those figures broadly correlate with the longer term dependability study.
The Initial Quality Survey in 2009 was the best result since the inception of the survey in 1987.
The 2012 industry average of 132 problems per 100 vehicles was down on 151 problems in 2011.
* Source: J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Vehicle Dependability StudySM