Automakers have made substantial gains in building sturdier engines and transmissions over the past five years, according to a Consumer Reports study on automotive reliability released Monday.
But they ran into substantial trouble adding electronic equipment and computer systems into their vehicles, the Annual Reliability Study also found.
The problems negated the improvements, said Jake Fisher, the director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports. "Overall, reliability is about the same as it was five years ago," he said Monday at a press conference to announce the findings in Detroit.
Toyota swept the top three spots in the reliability rankings. Its Scion brand captured the most-reliable spot for the second consecutive year, while the flagship Toyota brand ranked second and its Lexus luxury brand took third. More than 90 percent of its models tested ranked average or better.
Japanese automakers carried the top seven spots in the rankings.
But the biggest story that emerged from the findings was Ford's plunge. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker finished 27th of 28 brands ranked. Only two years ago, Consumer Reports had hailed Ford as a "poster child" of reliability. Fisher attributed Ford's rapid descent to problems in new versions of the Explorer, Fiesta and Focus as well as widespread hiccups with its MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment system.
"Ford had a really bad year this year," Fisher said.
He said customers reported problems that were not minor. Often, cars equipped with the infotainment systems needed to go back to the dealerships to get the car computer completely rebooted.
Consumer Reports' bases its study on information collected from car owners on the Consumer Reports National Research Center database, and is based on the three most recent model years, so long as the models were not redesigned for 2013.
That exception could hurt Ford further in the years ahead, because the '13 Escape was not included in the rankings--a vehicle that has already been recalled three times since its launch.
Sixty-percent of Ford-branded models and 50-percent of Lincoln models fared below average in predicted reliability, and none fared above average, according to the study.
Ford said the Consumer Reports results matched internal data the company had received, although officials added that the company made major improvement earlier this year, and that the survey lagged behind current trends.
"Consumer Reports is hugely important to Ford; you can't dismiss Consumer Reports in any way," said Ford spokesperson Mark Schirmer. "We offered a major improvement to MyFord Touch in the spring and began offering new transmission calibrations this summer. Unfortunately, there are still some bugs in the system that we are working through."
It was bleak news overall for American automakers. No American brands finished in the top 10, and there are no new models offered by Detroit's Big Three that fell on Consumer Reports' recommended list. Cadillac was perhaps the lone success story, jumping 14 places in the rankings to No. 11, the first American car on the rankings.
Its CTS coupe ranked as the most reliable domestic car. Several other GM nameplates – Buick, Chevrolet and GMC – also moved upward. The Chevy Volt continues to have above-average reliability (significant since there is so much technology in the Volt), according to Consumer Reports, while the Chevy Cruze, improved to average.
Other notable items from the survey: Audi earned the biggest climb in the rankings, rising eighteen spots to No. 8 overall. Consumer Reports says that Mazda, fourth overall, is "hot on the tail" of the three Toyota brands ahead, and lauded the all-new CX-5 crossover as "much better than average." Subaru's standing improved, with a redesigned Impreza boosting its status.
Sharon Silke Carty and Scott Burgess contributed to this story.