Toyota Motor Sales Inc. continued its dominance, repeating as the automaker with the highest overall quality with an average of 107 problems per 100 vehicles. Toyota and its Lexus luxury division held onto the lead in nine of the 16 segments covered in the survey.
GM had four top-ranked models. Ford, including its Mazda unit, topped three segments.
Toyota was followed by American Honda Motor Co. (113 problems), BMW of North America (116 problems), Porsche Cars North America Inc. (122 problems) and GM (130 problems).
The industry average was 133 problems per 100 vehicles, a 10 percent improvement over 2001. It was the largest quality improvement since 1997. Over the past five years, initial quality has improved 24 percent.
Toyota and GM showed the biggest gains in quality over the past five years, with improvements of 31 percent and 30 percent respectively.
Among multidivisional corporations — those producing a full line of cars and trucks — Toyota was first, followed by Honda and GM. An 11 percent improvement over last year's performance allowed GM to vault past Nissan Motors Corp., which saw its quality decline by 5 percent.
"The results really were surprising and disappointing, we expected to do better," said Emil Hassan, Nissan senior vice president for North American manufacturing, purchasing and logistics.
"This shows a concerted effort not only by GM but as an industry in improving quality," said Brian Walters, director of product research at J.D. Power, which released its survey Thursday.
Despite its gains, GM is concerned that Toyota trucks won top quality honors in all but the full-size SUV category, which was led by Ford Motor Co.
Trucks have been GM's bread and butter products and where the automaker makes its biggest profits.
"We're identifying all the issues that have been raised and we're working vigorously to make sure we're getting them resolved," Kent Sears, GM vice president of quality, said in a conference call with reporters.
Among U.S. automakers, Ford made the biggest improvement.
After a disappointing showing in the 2001 study, Ford rebounded with a 12 percent improvement, trimming its problems per 100 vehicles to 143 from 162.
"We did make a remarkable gain when you think about a 19 problem reduction," said Louise Goeser, Ford vice president of quality.
She attributed the company's quality turnaround to "getting back to basics with quality and building quality vehicles as a cornerstone."
Goeser also said standardizing the manufacturing process and using the 6 Sigma problem solving process, which assigns teams to find and analyze problems and their solutions, played a major role in the automaker's improvement.
The Ford Thunderbird was rated the best entry luxury car, an unusual standing in the first year of a vehicle's production. The Thunderbird was also Ford's highest rated vehicle.
DaimlerChrysler AG, which includes the U.S.-based Chrysler Group, showed an 8 percent improvement with 141 problems per 100 vehicles.
The Chrysler Group improved by 10 percent over last year and 26 percent in the last five years.
Korean automakers Kia Motors America Inc. and Hyundai Motor America Inc. showed the most improvement in the past year with gains of 21 and 19 percent respectively.
Among specific models, Chevrolet Malibu made the biggest quality gain in the past year with a 58 percent improvement, followed by the Buick Century, Chevrolet Corvette and the Lexus GS sedan, each with 49 percent improvements.
GM and Toyota also dominated the assembly plant quality awards.
This is the 16th year the Westlake Village, Calif., market research firm has produced the initial quality study. The report is based on data from consumers who bought or leased vehicles in November and December 2001. The 65,000 new-car buyers surveyed were asked about 135 different areas that might have problems during the first 90 days of ownership.