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JD Power:Dogs of the Car Industry

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Hummer Fares Badly as J.D. Power

Lists Poor Performers for First Time

By KAREN LUNDEGAARD

Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Hummer helped win the war in Iraq, but a civilian version may not be such a winner in your driveway.

For the first time, a closely watched quality survey by J.D. Power & Associates revealed some of the dogs of the auto industry as well as its stars. The Hummer had the worst quality of any brand. Owners who were involved in the survey criticized the $50,000 H2 for everything from poor mileage to lack of power.

The survey had a lesson for consumers: Money doesn't necessarily buy quality. Four of the five worst brands are considered luxury or "premium" brands.

J.D. Power ranks cars and trucks by the number of problems per 100 vehicles. At the bottom of this year's results: Hummer, the General Motors Corp. brand famous for its military inspired Hummer H2 mega-SUV, had a striking 225 problems per 100 vehicles. Ford Motor Co.'s Land Rover division scored 190 problems per 100 vehicles. Korean car maker Kia had a rate of 168 problems per 100 vehicles. And buyers of cute and ultra compact Mini cars reported 166 problems per 100 vehicles for Bayerische Motoren Werke AG's year-old brand. GM's Saab brand, meanwhile, had 160 problems per 100.

Despite those trouble spots, the top brands in America were luxury nameplates as well. Lexus, Toyota Motor Corp.'s upscale division and perennial quality winner, performed best, with just 76 problems per 100. That's a 13% improvement over last year. Next was Cadillac, at 103, fueled by the successful launch of its CTS sedan.

Overall, the news from the survey was a mixed bag for consumers. After several years of marked improvement, the industry average was unchanged from the previous year at 133 problems per 100.

Most of the top auto makers all fared worse than last year, and all of the Big Three were below the industry average. Even leader Toyota's score worsened to 115 problems per 100. Honda Motor Co., hurt by the launch of its best-selling Accord, dropped from second place a year ago to fourth this year, as its score fell 11.5% to 126. Porsche AG improved 4% to finish second, ahead of BMW at 124. Nissan Motor Co., which had one of the worst performances among major auto makers a year ago because of problems with the launch of its redesigned Altima, improved by more than 11% this year. A major factor was the smooth launch of its new Murano sport-utility vehicle.

The survey is known as an initial quality study because it tabulates responses from 52,000 new vehicle buyers based on the first 90 days of ownership. It has become a sort of Oscars for quality in the U.S. automotive industry. Auto makers have been hinting at their results for weeks in an effort to build -- or lower -- expectations.

In the past, J.D. Power, which sells the results to the auto makers and charges them if they tout it in their advertising, only released results for the best brands. But bootleg versions of the survey often leaked out. This year, the firm decided to release more complete results itself.

As quality has improved over the years, the problems highlighted in the survey are less and less troublesome for consumers than the serious initial-quality problems of cars in the past. The complaints today often involve minor annoyances rather than major mechanical problems. This year's top complaints: Wind noise and fuel consumption.

Wind noise is now the "hardy perennial" of issues, said Joe Ivers, executive director of auto research at J.D. Power. "It just crops up on most vehicles most years." Excessive fuel consumption jumped to the No. 2 spot this year because of higher gas prices, particularly affecting scores for the largest SUVs and trucks, Mr. Ivers said.

Indeed, both of those complaints felled Hummer's popular H2, the only vehicle included in Hummer's results (the H1 doesn't sell enough vehicles to be included). Lousy mileage was the top complaint among H2 owners, accounting for 22 of its problems. Next was headlights that were aimed too high (19 problems and an issue GM has since fixed) and wind noise (12 problems).

Not all complaints were trivial, though. Consumers complained of lack of power from the engine, a steering wheel that wasn't centered, an overactive automatic shifter, unusual suspension noises and exterior modeling coming loose.

"There are a lot of details to be gotten right on that vehicle," Mr. Ivers said.

GM's top management was none too pleased with Hummer's performance. "We are absolutely not happy with the results," said Gary Cowger, president of GM's North American operations.

Still, Mr. Cowger and executives at other top auto makers seemed at a loss with how to fix some of the complaints. On the H2's fuel economy, Mr. Cowger noted that he hoped the price of gasoline went down. Mr. Ivers noted, though, that part of the issue is managing consumers' expectations, and Hummer is not required to include fuel economy (indeed, GM doesn't publish it though it says the vehicle averages about 11 miles per gallon) because the vehicle is too heavy to be subject to rules governing light trucks.

The auto makers take any consumer complaints very seriously. Mark Templin, a Lexus vice president who oversees customer satisfaction, said that the luxury brand has spent years reducing its wind noise to get the quietest cars in the industry. Now, complaints center more on consumer-education issues, he says, such as how to use the navigation system.

Mr. Cowger noted that GM continues to work on its acoustic packages. "All our top problems are now around some kind of sound issue," he said.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group last year spent $3.7 million on a new wind tunnel that should help it improve wind noise and fuel economy.

Write to Karen Lundegaard at [email protected]

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