06/20/2012 03:54 pm ET

Technology Complaints For Cars Surge, Latest J.D. Power Survey Shows

All that new technology put in cars by automakers is causing problems, as consumers grow increasingly frustrated with radio and navigation systems and hands-free cellphone devices not working as they were intended.

J.D. Power released on Wednesday its annual initial quality survey, which examines complaints lodged by consumers 90 days after the purchase of a 2012 model year vehicle. Automakers take this study very seriously, using the results to make design changes and boasting in advertising when their brands perform well.

Many of the problems cited in this year's survey pale in comparison to those previously on the list. Twenty-six years ago, when J.D. Power started the survey, drivers reported flaws like door handles coming off in drivers' hands and frequent stalling problems. Since then, overall quality has improved dramatically, so the nature of complaints has changed to incorporate design flaws that make cars less appealing to buyers.

Lexus, a brand owned by Toyota, ranked No. 1 on the quality survey for the second year in a row. Jaguar and Porsche tied for second place.

Overall quality has advanced since last year, but technology is becoming an increasing concern for carmakers. For the first time in the survey's 26-year history, complaints about technology surpassed those about any other aspect.

"The most innovative technology in the world will quickly create dissatisfaction if owners can’t get it to work,” said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates, in a statement.

Hands-free devices, intended to minimize distraction by letting drivers use voice commands to make phone calls or input preferences for the navigation system, have been the most problematic. Complaints about hands-free devices jumped 137 percent over the past four years. Most complaints arise from consumers saying the cars don't understand the driver's voice.

In 2012, more than 80 percent of those surveyed by J.D. Power said their car had some sort of hands-free device, Sargent said during a press briefing.

Ford has been particularly pummeled by consumer dissatisfaction with its technology. It ranked 27th out of 34 brands on the J.D. Power survey. Just two years ago, Ford ranked fifth on the survey, but now complaints about technology have hindered its ranking.

On Tuesday, Ford did some damage control before the survey's release by inviting reporters to speak with its vice president of global marketing, Jim Farley, about how changes with its MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch systems.

In March, the automaker sent USB drives to 400,000 customers to upgrade those systems, so that the touchscreens would respond faster to drivers, better understand their voices and simplify the controls. J.D. Power closed its survey at the end of February, so if customers are now happier now, Wednesday's report didn't capture this development.

Customers are significantly more satisfied with the new system, Farley claimed. "It's a whole lot better than the previous system, so we would expect Ford to rebound" in next year's J.D. Power survey results, he said.

Other highlights of the report:

  • The three brands scoring lowest in the survey were Mini, Fiat and Smart, all small car brands.

    Traditionally larger cars have been more problematic, but this year consumers had a lot of gripes about small cars, Sargent said. They didn't like the amount of wind noise they could hear while driving, felt the car engines didn't pack enough power and generally felt the controls were confined into too tiny a space.

    "Pretty much across the industry, small cars haven't performed as well as larger cars," Sargent said of the 2012 results. "So if you have a brand that has a lot of small cars, you won't do well on the survey."

  • In this year's survey, the industry seemed to fare pretty well at launching new cars, negating the conventional wisdom that one should never buy a new car in its first year of production. In the 2011 survey, many brand-new or updated models had scored poorly.

    But automakers have done a great job lately launching new vehicles, like the Audi A7, Chrysler 300 and Honda CRV, Sargent asserted. "This year, brands were launching vehicles that were every bit as good as the models they replaced."

  • The automakers are spending money to make consumers happy, Sargent said. In 2008 and 2009, automakers scaled back on investing in new models. But with the recent rebound in sales, they've been pouring more money into cars to address complaints raised by consumers in the J.D. Power survey.

    "The industry is spending a lot more money on solving problems because frankly they have it," Sargent said.