Automakers, eager to meet customers' demands for new technology, have been racing to add gadgets to their dashboards, from backup cameras to touch-screen climate controls.
But an influential survey suggests they need to slow down, because the technology is taking a toll on quality.
Drivers reported more problems with their all-new or redesigned 2011 models than they did the year before, according to J.D. Power and Associates' annual survey of new vehicle quality, released on Thursday. Complaints about audio, entertainment and navigation systems got the bulk of the blame, and are up 28 percent since 2009.
The survey questioned 78,000 people about problems they had with 2011 model-year vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership. Owners reported an average of 107 problems per 100 vehicles. That jumped to 122 problems for cars that were new or redesigned for 2011, up 10 percent from 2010 model-year cars and trucks.
Overall, automakers got better scores than last year, because many carried over previous models into 2011 without major changes. Lexus, Honda and Acura were the top performers, all with less than 100 problems. Dodge was the worst-performing brand.
But new cars with new technology were a problem. They proved to be the downfall for Ford, which dropped from a fifth-place quality ranking in 2010 to 23rd this year.
Ford launched its My Ford Touch dashboard system on the Ford Edge and Ford Explorer crossovers in the 2011 model year. The system allows drivers to control climate, navigation, entertainment and other features by voice or through a touch screen.
Ford says 73 percent of owners with My Ford Touch say they're satisfied with the system. The company wants to help drivers do the things they're already doing — making calls, answering texts, playing music — without taking their hands off the wheel.
"This is a trend we can't ignore," said Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, at an event earlier this week.
But the company acknowledges that My Ford Touch is complex and has been difficult for some buyers to use. Owners have also complained that the system takes a long time to boot up. It also has many glitches, including failing to recognize voice commands or properly link up with mobile phones.
Ford says it has made software updates to improve the system. It is now offering workshops at dealerships to help owners get more familiar with the system.
"We expected mixed quality results this year, after closely listening to our customers. This same feedback now shows that we largely are back on track after addressing near-term quality issues," Ford's Fields said in a statement Thursday.
J.D. Power didn't single out Ford, but said automakers need to be make sure technology is easy for people to operate while they're driving.
"Automakers must ensure that the technology is ready for prime time," said David Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president of global research.
The Toyota brand saw a big leap in quality, jumping 14 spots to seventh place. Toyota's 2010 rankings were hurt by a series of safety recalls. Also, Toyota introduced few new products for 2011, so it didn't experience the glitches other manufacturers did.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus luxury brand moved up three spots to take the lead in the survey from Porsche. Lexus had 73 problems per 100 vehicles. Dodge, the worst performing brand overall, had 137 problems per 100 vehicles.
Cadillac and GMC, both General Motors Co. brands, and Mazda rose into the top ten performers this year. Hyundai, Ford and Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln luxury brand dropped out of the top tier.
Honda was the best performer in segment-level awards. The Fit subcompact, Civic and Insight small cars, Accord midsize car, Element compact crossover, Crosstour midsize crossover and Ridgeline pickup were all the best performers in their segments.
While J.D. Power's rankings are used in advertising and are important to the industry, some critics question whether they show any real statistical difference between automakers.
Lexus' rating, for example, equates to 0.73 problems per vehicle, while the rating for Dodge, which finished last, equals 1.37 problems per vehicle. So on average, less than one problem per vehicle separates the best brand from the worst.