Lexus, Porsche, Toyota and Lincoln had the best records in the 2013 J.D. Power and Associates vehicle dependability study.
In good news for car owners, the study found that overall, cars are becoming more reliable. Other top scorers included Buick, Mercedes- Benz, Honda and Acura. The study measures the number of problems owners have experienced in the past 12 months in cars purchased during the 2010 model year.
Overall, the cars experienced an average of 126 problems per hundred vehicles. That was a decline from 132 the previous model year and the lowest average since J.D. Power launched the study in 1989.
"It is great news for consumers," said Raffi Festekjian, J.D. Power's director of automotive global research operations. "Manufacturers continue to keep their eye on the ball and improve quality.
"Consumers are spending less time at the dealer, and there is less money spent on repairs if you have driven past the original warranty because the vehicles are more dependable.
The study comes as consumers are keeping their cars longer. On average, drivers are now holding onto the cars they have purchased new for nearly six years, a record length of ownership, according to automotive research firm R.L. Polk & Co. For consumers who purchased used vehicles, the average length of ownership is nearly 50 months.
Tepid consumer confidence has combined with increased durability of vehicles and more robust warranties to lengthen the time people are holding on to their car, according to Polk.
"Our data show that the dependability is better, and that gives consumers confidence. If they are experiencing fewer problems they will hold on to the vehicles longer," Festekjian said.
J.D. Power found that more than two-thirds of the brands had better scores from the previous years and the domestic nameplates improved at a slightly faster rate than the import brands.
Still, the import brands, led by the Japanese automakers, were still more dependable, logging 10 fewer problems per hundred vehicles. But the gap was smaller, shrinking from 13 problems per hundred vehicles in last year's study. In one finding, the study observed that the common assumption that newly redesigned or substantially changed model cars were less reliable from autos that were largely unchanged from the previous model year may be wrong.
Redesigned models experienced an average of 116 problems per hundred vehicles, well below the overall average and the average of 133 problems for models unchanged from the 2009 model year.
"There is a perception that all-new models, or models that undergo a major redesign, are more problematic than carryover models," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D.
Power. "This is not the case. The rapid improvement in fundamental vehicle dependability each year is more than offsetting any initial glitches that all-new or redesigned models may have."
The number of problems people experience with their cars has important implications for the auto industry. J.D. Power found that 54 percent of the owners who had no problems with their vehicles stay with the same brand when they purchase their next car. Brand loyalty slips to 41 percent when people experience three or more problems with their vehicles.