By Josee Valcourt | Josee Valcourt,The Detroit News
DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. took a big step forward in its comeback bid yesterday by taking the top spot in five of 19 vehicle categories in the 2007 customer survey by J.D. Power and Associates, more than any other automaker including vaunted Toyota Motor Corp.
The closely watched study of vehicle quality in the first 90 days of ownership of 2007 model year vehicles showed nearly across-the-board improvement for the automaker.
All of its domestic brands - Ford, Lincoln and Mercury - scored above average for the first time in recent memory.
By contrast, all of the domestic brands of General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group scored below average.
J.D. Power also gave the Platinum Plant Quality Award for producing vehicles yielding the fewest defects to Ford's Wixom Assembly Plant, which stopped making cars May 31. The plant produced the Lincoln Town Car, which averages 35 problems per 100 vehicles.
"The news is certainly positive for Ford and for all of our brands," said Bennie Fowler, Ford's vice president of quality and advanced manufacturing, at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit, where the study was released.
The news was especially good for Ford, which in recent weeks ranked last in the Harbour Report on factory productivity and was slammed by suppliers as being the worst automaker to do business with.
The results also mirror a similar internal study Ford conducted that showed the automaker in a dead-heat for second place in quality with Toyota and Nissan.
Ford has struggled in the past few years to improve quality and reliability as fast as its key competitors, particularly Toyota and Honda Motor Co.
While Toyota brands still scored slightly better than Ford in the J.D. Power study, the Japanese automaker took only four of the top spots in the 19 vehicle segments, down from 11 a year ago.
Joe Ivers, J.D. Power's executive director of quality and customer satisfaction, said there's no clear answer for Toyota's drop. But several vehicles brought its quality performance down this year, including the Corolla, Prius and Lexus models.
It is worth noting, he said, that Toyota executives have been speaking publicly about their concerns about maintaining its historically high quality during a time of rapid growth.
Toyota downplayed the results of the survey. "What's important to our company is to look at the problems customers are experiencing, and being No. 1 is not really what's important to us," said Flaurel English, corporate manager/strategic planning for Toyota Motor Sales.
About 97,000 vehicle owners and lessees responded to the 228-question surveys. Vehicles were evaluated between November 2006 and January 2007.
Porsche again dominated the overall ranking of brands, averaging 91 problems per 100 vehicles, as it had last year. It was followed by Toyota's Lexus brand, Lincoln, Honda, DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz, Ford's Jaguar, Toyota, Mercury, Nissan's Infiniti and Ford.
In one black mark for Ford, its Mazda and Land Rover brands finished last.
Ford earned segment awards for the Mustang, Lincoln Mark LT, Lincoln MKZ, Mercury Milan and Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Milan bumped the Toyota Camry from the top spot.
Mazda is controlled by Ford. In all, 14 Ford models ranked in the top three of their respective categories.
Mercedes, which has seen its quality fall in recent years, rebounded, finishing in the fifth spot, up from 25 last year.
Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. had mixed results in the survey. Its Hyundai and Kia brands tied at 12th place, with Hyundai down from third place a year ago, but Kia was up from 24th.
Three GM vehicles took top honors in their categories, the Pontiac Grand Prix sedan, Chevrolet Express van and Chevrolet Silverado Classic HD pickup.
None of Chrysler's vehicles scored top honors, and all three of its brands - Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge, were rated well below average.