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Car competition eases consumers’ 
vehicle problems

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

DETROIT – Car shoppers today are less likely to end up with a lemon.

In the past five years, global competition has forced automakers to improve the quality and reliability of their vehicles – everything from inexpensive mini-cars to decked-out luxury SUVs.

The newfound emphasis on quality means fewer problems for owners. It also means more options for buyers, who can buy a car from Detroit or South Korea and know it will hold up like a vehicle from Japan.

With few exceptions, cars are so close on reliability that it’s getting harder for companies to charge a premium. So automakers are trying to set themselves apart with sleek, cutting-edge exterior designs and more features such as luxurious interiors, multiple air bags, dashboard computers and touch-screen controls.

“It’s a great time to be a consumer,” says Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for the TrueCar.com auto pricing website. “You can’t really screw up too badly in terms of your vehicle choice.”

The newfound emphasis on quality has closed the gap between best and worst in the industry. In 1998, J.D. Power and Associates, which surveys owners about trouble with their cars after three years, found an industry average of 278 problems per 100 vehicles. By this year, the number fell to 132.

In 1998, the most reliable car had 92 problems per 100 vehicles, while the least reliable had 517, a gap of 425. This year the gap closed to 284 problems.

“We don’t have total clunkers like we used to,” says Dave Sargent, automotive vice president with J.D. Power.

Nearly all automakers are improving in quality, but manufacturers at the bottom of the rankings are improving more quickly than those at the top, Sargent said.

Detroit’s three automakers have narrowed the quality gap considerably against brands from other countries. In 1998, J.D. Power found 42 more problems per 100 vehicles with GM, Ford and Chrysler cars and trucks. This year the gap had narrowed to just 13. While car prices are still rising, the narrow gap keeps Japanese automakers from charging a premium over rivals with similar models.

The competition helps consumers by giving them more choices and more car for their money.

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