NEW YORK — There's a message for Detroit's automakers in the new J.D. Power and Associates rankings: Good work. Now go back and do it again.
The marketing and consulting company's closely watched annual study of vehicle quality found Monday that Ford, General Motors and Chrysler made strides last year but still lag behind their foreign competitors.
At a time when Detroit is desperate to start turning out cars and trucks that people want to buy, the top two brands in the J.D. Power study were foreign cars: Lexus, Toyota's luxury line, and the Porsche. GM's Cadillac finished third.
The survey measures mechanical and design problems that show up in the first 90 days of ownership. The 2009 models turned out by the Detroit Three improved by an average of 10 percent, compared with an industry average of 8 percent.
Toyota, which overtook GM last year as the world's biggest automaker, dominated the J.D. Power honors. It swept awards in 10 vehicle categories, and its plant in Japan that builds the Lexus SC 430 and Toyota Corolla took the award for top plant.
For GM, only two brands performed above average: Cadillac and Chevrolet. The four brands it is purging in bankruptcy protection _ Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab _ were also its worst rated.
"Is it where we need to be? No," said Jamie Hresko, GM's vice president for global quality. "To have our core brands _ Cadillac and Chevrolet _ be on par with Toyota, we have reached a level of quality that will allow us to change perceptions."
The scores come during a tumultuous time for the auto industry, with sales at their worst level in decades and taxpayers stuck paying for part of the restructuring of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC to the tune of billions of dollars.
Although the two automakers have been pummeled by the economic crisis, many analysts have complained that a shortage of high-quality small car offerings has hobbled their performance in an already difficult market.
"There are too many cars and not enough consumers," said Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power "For any vehicle that is lagging in quality ... that's a difficult position for them to be in."
Sargent said the quality of Detroit's passenger cars is now roughly equal to foreign automakers'. And GM has several new, small cars on the way that industry analysts say should help it compete with established offerings from the likes of Toyota and Honda.
GM plans to start building the subcompact Chevrolet Cruze next year and says it will get about 40 mpg. It also plans to sell the Chevrolet Spark minicar in the United States in 2011.
The road may be tougher for Chrysler, which recently emerged from bankruptcy. Cars like the sporty 500 made by its new owner, Italy's Fiat Group SpA, won't make it to the U.S. until late next year.
The company planned to roll out new versions of its popular Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and Chrysler 300 large sedan by the end of next year, along with a rechargeable electric vehicle, but those will probably be delayed by the bankruptcy process.
"The relatively low number of vehicles they are bringing out _ that does give them a challenge in maintaining market share," Sargent said.
Chrysler's scores improved from last year, and it claimed five of the 10 most improved vehicles, Sargent said. But all three of its brands _ Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep _ were below the industry average.
It did tie for one award: The PT Cruiser shared the top honor in a category called compact activity vehicle with Honda's CR-V. But Chrysler is discontinuing the Cruiser.
The study suggests "we have some forward momentum," Doug Betts, Chrysler's senior vice president for quality, said in a statement. "We have figured out how to improve vehicles in production and have taken aggressive actions to continue that progress."
Ford Motor Co., the only one of the Detroit Three that has managed to stay out of bankruptcy, improved in the survey with three of its four brands: Ford, Mercury and Volvo. But the Lincoln's score fell, and only Ford and Mercury performed above the industry average.
For the industry as a whole, there were just 108 problems reported for every 100 vehicles, down from 118 last year. J.D. Power several well-received new models that were launched in 2009, including the Hyundai Genesis, Kia Borrego, Toyota Venza and Volkswagen CC.
The rankings are based on questionnaires from more than 80,000 people who bought or leased new 2009 cars and trucks earlier this year. The lengthy questionnaire covers issues from handling and braking to seat comfort and stereo systems.
While the rankings are familiarly used in TV ads and important to the industry, some critics question whether they show any real statistical difference between automakers.
Lexus' rating, for example, equates to 0.84 problems per vehicle, and the rating for Mini, which finished last, equals 1.65 problems per vehicle. So on average, less than one problem per vehicle separates the best brand from the worst.