J.D. Power: U.S. Auto Quality Slips for 1st Time in 16 Years

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Stan Honda, AFP/Getty ImagesGM's Cadillac brand was one of the biggest gainers in the latest J.D. Power vehicle reliability survey.
By Ben Klayman

DETROIT -- Engine and transmission problems caused quality in the U.S. auto industry to slip for the first time in 16 years in a vehicle dependability study of owners of 3-year-old cars and trucks, falling from last year's record-high levels.

The industry's 2011-model cars, introduced in 2010, the year after sector sales hit a 28-year low during the recession, saw a nearly 6 percent decline in quality to 133 problems per 100 vehicles from 126 last year, according to the J.D. Power U.S. vehicle dependability survey released Wednesday. It was the first increase in the average number of problems since 1998.

General Motors (GM), the No. 1 U.S. automaker, received eight segment awards, tops in the industry, and all four of its brands finished above the industry average. Its luxury Cadillac brand was one of the biggest gainers in the survey, jumping 11 spots to rank as the third most reliable.

The biggest complaints among the more than 41,000 owners surveyed were about engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts and lack of power, but David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power, said a lot of that was due to lack of consumer familiarity with the smaller, less powerful 4-cylinder engines many buy now.

"The manufacturers are starting to recalibrate the engine and transmission to squeeze every last point-one mpg out of the vehicle to help them hit CAFE regulations," he said of the rising federal fuel efficiency standards.

"Some of the manufacturers accept that by doing that there's a compromise," Sargent added. "The consumers complain that the engine and transmission are not responding the way they want."

Engine and transmission problems rose by nearly six per 100 vehicles, accounting for most of the industry's overall increase, and the decline was particularly sharp with 4-cylinder engines, where the number of problems for every 100 vehicles rose by nearly 10, J.D. Power said.

While the automakers will adjust, the issue will continue because of the continued push for greater fuel efficiency, Sargent said. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%And this year's results are only just beginning to show the affect of another trend -- the higher penetration of technology like voice recognition and navigation systems. The inclusion of those features will lead to even more complaints.

Toyota Motor's (TM) luxury brand Lexus led in reliability for the third straight year with a score of 68 problems per 100 vehicles, down from 71 last year.

"The gap between them and everyone else is crazy," Sargent said of Lexus. "Mercedes is in second place and they're closer to the average than they are to Lexus. It's like everyone has been lapped by Lexus."

Vehicle dependability is important to automakers because fewer problems translates into more loyal customers. J.D. Power said that 56 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 42 percent when three or more problems are experienced.

Sixteen of the 31 brands measured saw their scores decline or remain unchanged in the survey. However, the U.S. domestic nameplates improved at a slightly greater rate than imports, narrowing their scoring gap to eight problems per 100 vehicles with an overall average of 138, down from a gap of 10 last year.

U.S. auto sales rebounded almost 12 percent in 2010, the year after demand hit its lowest level since World War Two and both GM and Chrysler underwent government-sponsored bankruptcies and Ford Motor (F) borrowed heavily to avoid the same fate. Chrysler Group is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Porsche Falls in Ranks, Infiniti Rises

Following Lexus in the survey were Daimler's Mercedes-Benz brand (104 problems per 100 vehicles), Cadillac (107), Honda Motor's luxury Acura brand (109) and GM's Buick (112). Cadillac cut the number of problems per 100 vehicles by 21 from last year. Ford's luxury Lincoln brand held the top ranking in the 2011 study.

Rounding out the top 10 this year were Honda's (HMC) namesake brand, Lincoln and Toyota's namesake brand (each at 114 problems per 100 vehicles), Porsche (125) and Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand (128). Porsche fell from second last year and saw its problems per 100 vehicles rise by 31, while Infiniti jumped 10 spots in the rankings.

The bottom five scoring brands were Hyundai Motor (169 problems per 100 vehicles), Chrysler's Jeep SUV brand (178), Tata Motors' Land Rover brand (179), Chrysler's Dodge brand (181) and BMW's Mini brand (185). However, Land Rover showed the greatest improvement by any brand, cutting its problems per 100 vehicles by 41.

Among individual models, the Lexus LS and Cadillac DTS luxury sedans both had the strongest dependability in the industry with just 62 problems per 100 vehicles, J.D. Power said. The DTS is no longer built, having been replaced by the XTS. Chrysler's Dodge Journey scored the biggest improvement, cutting its problems by 62.

GM, through its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands, garnered eight segment awards, including the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid electric for the top ranked compact car and the GMC Sierra for the top ranked light- and heavy-duty pickup trucks.

Sargent called GM's performance "impressive," but said the automaker will need to execute equally well with newer vehicles as it has with older models.

Toyota and Honda led in seven and six segments, respectively. The Mini Cooper won the compact sporty car segment.

The Best And Worst Vehicles For Under $30,000
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J.D. Power: U.S. Auto Quality Slips for 1st Time in 16 Years

By Michael Zak | AOL Autos

A recent Interest.com study looked at the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the United States to see which median-income households in those respective areas can afford to purchase a new car, the average price of which was $30,550 in 2012, according to TrueCar. The study found that in only one city can residents actually afford a car with this sticker price -- Washington, D.C.

Households with an average income in Washington, D.C. can afford a payment of up to $628, which would allow for purchase of a $31,940 vehicle. The next closest city, San Francisco, can only afford $537 per month, equating to a $26,786.

While it's not news that Americans like to buy things that they can't afford, the data is a little surprising given how many great cars there are out there for well under $30,000. Solid hybrids, CUVs, sedans and sports cars can all be had for less than this.

We've racked our brains and come up with 5 of the best cars that are cheaper than the average car's purchase price. These are affordable, versatile, fun and fuel efficient. Of course, there are some stinkers in this price range, as well, so we've included 5 vehicles we think you should avoid.

Subaru BRZ

MSRP: $25,495 - $27,495
Invoice: $24,327 - $26,112
Fuel Economy: 22 mpg City, 30 mpg Highway

The Subaru BRZ proves that driving bliss doesn't have to cost a fortune. The rear-wheel drive sports coupe is one of the most engaging vehicles on the road today, with utterly superb dynamics and looks. The best part? You can have one for $25,495.

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Volkswagen Golf

MSRP: $18,095 - $25,200
Invoice: $17,371 - $24,192
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg City, 33 mpg Highway

Although the redesigned 2014 version of this handsome hatch will be on sale in the near future, the current generation is still worth buying. It's fuel efficient, fun and surprisingly versatile. Starting at less than $20,000, the Golf is also quite affordable.

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Toyota Prius v

MSRP: $26,650 - $30,295
Invoice: $24,809 - $28,202
Fuel Economy: 44 mpg City, 40 mpg Highway

The Toyota Pirus v is essentially a bigger version of the popular Prius hybrid. This hatchback acheives stellar fuel economy while allowing for transport of numerous people and all of their stuff. Starting at $26,650, you can have all the benefits of a versatile hybrid for an agreeable price.

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Mazda CX-5

MSRP: $20,995 - $28,595
Invoice: $20,396 - $27,771
Fuel Economy: 26 mpg City, 35 mpg Highway

The Mazda CX-5 is one of our favorite crossovers here at AOL Autos even when taking more expensive ones into account. Remarkably fun to drive, fuel efficient and starting at a low price, there's a lot to love about this agile utility vehicle.

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MSRP: $16,695 - $21,115
Invoice: $16,208 - $20,218
Fuel Economy: 28 mpg City, 38 mpg Highway

This small sedan continue to be the darling of both critics and consumers nationwide. Available with tons of standard features, great looks and sweet fuel economy, the Elantra is one of the best cars on the planet right now.

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MSRP: $18,995 - $32,820
Invoice: $18,770 - $31,334
Fuel Economy: 21 mpg City, 29 mpg Highway

The 200 is a holdover from when Chrysler was owned by Daimler and then private equity-firm Cerberus Capital. It's not that this car is awful, especially since the new Chrysler, managed by Fiat, made a series of improvements. It's that the other cars in this category are so good, and much better designed and engineered.

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MSRP: $18,725 - $21,815
Invoice: $17,789 - $20,725
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg City, 31 mpg Highway

The Scion tC is intended to be a sporty coupe. The problem? It's not sporty. At all. In fact, the tC finds itself on the Consumer Reports list of the least fun cars to drive and we're inclined to agree with that assessment.

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MSRP: $18,995 - $30,795
Invoice: $18,800 - $29,276
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 26 mpg Highway

Short on features and with pretty poor driving dynamics, the Dodge Journey is one you should skip if you're shopping for a sub-$30,000 crossover. We're looking forward to Dodge's next attempt.

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MSRP: $25,900 - $29,200
Invoice: $24,452 - $27,507
Fuel Economy: 24 mpg City, 35 mpg Highway

Don't be fooled by the badge. This is not really a luxury car. With uninspired driving dynamics and a lackluster interior, you should pass on the ILX even though its low sticker price seems very tempting.

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MSRP: $12,490 - $17,890
Invoice: $11,616 - $16,638
Fuel Economy: 34 mpg City, 38 mpg Highway

The idea of the smart fortwo is great. It's the execution that's the problem. The fortwo is loud, terrible to drive and really isn't all that fuel efficient, considering its size. There are way better options between $10,000 and $20,000.

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