Quality should be Job 1 at Ford again.
The brand's ranking fell 10 spots in Consumer Reports' annual auto reliability survey, hurt by glitchy touch screens and transmissions. It now ranks 20th out of 28 major brands, based on a survey of the magazine's subscribers.
The Dearborn, Mich., automaker had been closing the quality gap with Japanese brands in recent years, but it may need to take its own advice from a 1980s ad campaign, in which it told viewers that "Quality is Job 1."
Japanese automakers continued to dominate the survey's top rankings. Brands from Toyota, Honda and Mazda held the top nine spots in the 2011 study, while Chrysler's Jeep was the top brand from a U.S. automaker. The Chrysler brand showed the most improvement over last year.
The findings are based on surveys taken this spring of subscribers who own or lease 1.3 million vehicles of model years from 2002 to 2011. The magazine uses the findings to predict reliability of 2012 models.
Consumer Reports ranks No. 3 on the list of information sources Americans use in choosing vehicles to buy, topped only by brand loyalty and recommendations from friends and family. The magazine released its annual survey results Tuesday in Detroit.
At Ford, magazine subscribers found problems with the MyFordTouch and MyLincolnTouch dashboard control screens, saying they froze or were difficult to use, said David Champion, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. The screens control cabin temperature, the radio and other functions. Also, the company's new small cars, the Focus compact and Fiesta subcompact, have new automatic transmissions that shift often and awkwardly, Champion said.
Although most of the transmission problems were rated as minor, many subscribers said the cars seemed to shift at will, especially at low speeds, Champion said.
"It's as if it's got a brain of its own," he said. "I think a lot of people think there's something wrong with it."
Bennie Fowler, Ford's group vice president for quality, said the company is taking the customer feedback seriously and is working to continuously improve vehicles.
"Our internal surveys now show that we are largely back on track after addressing these near-term quality issues," he said in a statement.
Ford's Lincoln luxury brand moved up one spot to 14th.
For the fourth year in a row, Toyota's Scion, a brand geared toward young people, had the fewest problems, followed by Toyota's Lexus brand, Honda's Acura, Mazda, and the Honda brand overall. Lexus, a perennial top finisher, recovered from a fall last year, rising seven spots on the list.
Scion was tops because the two models covered in the survey, the xB and xD, have been built for several years and the bugs have been worked out, Champion said. Champion also said Mazda improved because its current models have been out for several years.
For the most part, older models have better reliability than new or revamped models, said Champion.
At Chrysler, however, new or significantly revamped models led its resurgence. Champion said the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan, and the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs helped the company improve its ranking.
"They seem to be totally transfixed on getting it right," Champion said of Chrysler. "It was in many ways `Do or Die' for Chrysler."
Chrysler has been plagued by reliability problems for years but has been improving since the U.S. government put Italy's Fiat in charge after Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy filing. The Chrysler brand moved up in Consumer Reports' ranking from 27th last year to 15th this year. Jeep rose 7 spots to finish 13th.
Doug Betts, Chrysler's head of quality, said that for the past two years, Chrysler has been doing more rigorous tests on new models and finding and fixing problems before the cars reach showrooms.
"Maybe we didn't have all the environmental conditions or customer usages defined," he said.
The testing now simulates more extreme weather conditions and ways people use vehicles, Betts said.
While Chrysler improved, General Motors' reliability waned after edging up last year in the survey. Buick, Cadillac and GMC fell in the rankings, while Chevrolet stayed the same. The Buick LaCrosse luxury sedan dropped to below-average reliability, while the new Chevrolet Cruze compact also was below average, plagued by numerous minor problems, Champion said.
Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia leveled off this year to the middle of the pack after showing quality gains in the past. Hyundai had only one vehicle that ranked below average, though: the Santa Fe crossover powered by a V-6 engine.
The performance of European automakers was mixed, with Volvo leading the way at No. 10. Porsche plunged to second worst brand overall from its ranking last year as second-best. Volkswagen held steady at 16th, while Mercedes-Benz and BMW improved but were still ranked 18th and 19th.
Complete reliability histories of cars and brands can be found at www.ConsumerReports.org or in the magazine's December issue.
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