Car reliability drops for first time since 1998

Vehicle dependability has fallen for the first time since 1998, according a new study that measures how Americans feel about their 3-year-old cars, trucks and SUVs.

J.D. Power and Associates said the average 2011 model year vehicle has 133 problems per 100 vehicles, a 6 percent increase compared to last year’s survey.

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“This is a significant shift,” said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. “What we’re seeing is a growing number of complaints about the quality of vehicles. These are not necessarily problems that will cause a car or truck to break down, but they are issues irritating customers.”

Lexus | Bloomberg | Getty Images The Toyota Motor Corp. 2014 Lexus IS sport sedan.

Lexus | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Toyota Motor Corp. 2014 Lexus IS sport sedan.

The biggest increase in complaints by owners involved engine and transmission problems, Sargent said. In particular, people with vehicles that have 4-cylinder engines complained of problems such as engine hesitation, rough shifting and a lack of power.

“People driving these 2011 models with 4-cylinder engines like the fuel economy they are getting,” Sargent said. “What they don’t like is how those engines feel when people are driving them.”

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More than 41,000 owners of 2011 model year vehicles participated in the survey.

In terms of individual brands, Lexus once again took top honors and widened its lead when it comes to dependability.

“The difference between Lexus and the field is dramatic. In terms of the survey, it is a long ways ahead of others,” Sargent said. “In fact, six of the top 12 vehicles in the industry are Lexus models.”

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For the domestic automakers, the survey was a mixed bag. Ram suffered the biggest drop of any brand in the survey, falling 16 spots to 25th out of 31. J.D. power said Ram problems per 100 vehicles increased from 122 to 165.

Ford also fell in the rankings, from 13th to 17th. It’s the second year in a row Ford owners reported more problems than the industry average. “The main issue for Ford continues to be the Sync entertainment system,” Sargent said.

The bright spot for Detroit was the performance of General Motors. All four of its brands were ranked as having fewer problems than the industry average, with Cadillac jumping from 14th to third.

Sargent was not surprised. “GM’s vehicle dependability is improving,” he said. “What GM needs to do is work on its consistency.”

—By CNBC’s Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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