The magazine, operated by the nonprofit Consumers Union, bases the reliability rankings on responses from 965,000 subscribers covering 1.3 million vehicles. The auto issue also includes the magazine's ratings of vehicles based on its own testing.
David Champion, the magazine's director of automotive testing, blamed one model for Lexus' fall, the midsize GS that was redesigned last year. He said the car had problems in three areas -- body integrity, defined as rattles or poorly fitting panels; body hardware, such as locks and trunk mechanisms; and the sound system.
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The model still rated average and earned a purchase recommendation. All other Lexus models were better than average.
Toyota officials looked at the bright side. "We had three of the top five. It reflects well on our products," spokesman Xavier Dominicis said.
Mercedes, DaimlerChrysler's luxury brand, tumbled four places to the cellar, "a very poor showing for a very expensive car," Champion said. Mercedes' quality is so imperiled that a 9-year-old Lexus LS 400 has potentially fewer problems than a new Mercedes ML. Champion said of Mercedes: "They perform well, have great fit and finish. But they seem to have a lot of problems with the seven-speed automatic transmission in all their products, and power accessories and electrical systems."
Mercedes disputed the findings. Today's models "are without question some of the best we have ever built," spokeswoman Donna Boland said. "If the survey doesn't reflect that, there's something wrong with the survey."
She noted that 74 percent of Mercedes models sold in the USA over the past 50 years are still on the road. A 2006 survey by R.L. Polk showed that Mercedes has the highest owner loyalty of any brand.
Mercedes had quality issues a couple of years ago, but they were fixed, she said. "We have been out-front about that. But the data we have on the new models absolutely support that the quality is right up there with people's expectations."
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