DETROIT – General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC brands notch a 10% gain in initial quality, despite both auto makers filing for bankruptcy, J.D. Power and Associates says.

The improvement reported in the 2009 Initial Quality Study surpasses the 8% overall industry gain, a feat that surprised David Sargent, vice president-automotive research at J.D. Power.

“There’s a positive disconnect between the turbulence going on in the business side of those companies and people coming in every day to design and build high-quality vehicles,” he says at an Automotive Press Assn. event here. “They prefer to get on with their job and divorce themselves from the trauma, and I think that’s quite remarkable.

“There’s really no correlation between what’s happened financially to a company this year and how they performed in the study,” he adds.

Jamie Hresko, GM's vice president-quality, says the auto maker’s current financial troubles have actually helped boost quality.

“Difficult times call for difficult actions, and it actually raised the bar,” he tells Ward’s. “We’re contenting our cars to be the quietest, to have the best drivability experience and best navigation systems, as well as reliability.

“The results are not surprising. But we know we can’t be on par with competitors, we have to be better. There’s a lot of work to do.”

The annual study, now in its 23rd year, measures customer satisfaction during the first 90 days of vehicle ownership. The 2009 IQS results were calculated from responses from more than 80,000 owners and lessees of new ’09 vehicles between November and February.

The study also bestows awards on the world’s top assembly plants based on average levels of defects and malfunctions of vehicles produced at individual facilities.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury brand took top rankings with a reported average of 84 problems per 100 vehicles in 2009, improving 15 PP100 and moving up two spots from last year. The industry average for 2009 is 108 PP100.

Following Lexus were Porsche (90), Cadillac (91), Hyundai (95) and Honda (99).

Hyundai’s strong showing stemmed from the launch of the Genesis sedan, Sargent says.

Hyundai Motor America Inc. President and CEO John Krafcik credits the performance to the dedication of employees.

“We’re particularly delighted with the strong launch of Genesis, the North American Car of the Year, which surpassed several luxury competitors,” Krafcik says in a statement. “We are also thrilled with how well the fuel-efficient Elantra and Accent scored.”

The Toyota brand finished seventh with 101 PP100, while the Ford brand came in eighth with 102.

Of all nameplates, Suzuki posted the biggest gain this year, improving from 32nd place last year to ninth in 2009 with an average 103 PP100.

The study indicates domestic auto makers are closing the gap with their foreign counterparts. In the car category, domestics and imports were tied statistically in initial quality. In trucks, domestics fared slightly better than imports. However, imports performed considerably better than domestics in the cross/utility vehicle category.

The industry as a whole showed significant improvement in newly launched and redesigned models in ‘09. Historically, all-new models have launched with below-average levels of initial quality.

“Achieving high levels of initial quality in all-new models is one of the greatest challenges for manufacturers,” Sargent says. “Now that more manufacturers are getting their launch quality right straight out of the gate, consumers can expect the quality of new vehicles to rise.”

New ’09 models that performed exceptionally well include the Hyundai Genesis, Kia Borrego, Toyota Venza and Volkswagen CC.

Redesigned models that showed notable improvement from the previous generation include the Acura TL, Honda Pilot and Nissan Z.

The five worst-performing nameplates were Jeep (137 PP100), Saab (138), Smart (138), Land Rover (150) and Mini (165).

Jaguar, which last year ranked ahead of the industry average with 112 PP100, dropped significantly in the study with 134 PP100 in 2009.

Sargent says Jaguar’s slide largely is attributable to a less-than-stellar launch of the ’09 XF sedan.

Jaguar spokesman Stuart Schorr agrees, but adds the “minor glitches during the launch phase of the XF have been fully rectified.

“Minor launch glitches/issues impacting the score that have since been improved include the glove-box operation and the fuel-filler flap,” Schorr says. “The score was also impacted by customer questions on brake dust, a common issue.”

The study also ranks nameplates according to segment. The Toyota Yaris took the top spot in the subcompact-car category, while the Hyundai Elantra sedan was the highest-ranking compact car.

In the midsize-car segment, which Sargent says is “possibly the most competitive,” the Nissan Altima was tops, besting the second-place Pontiac G6 and third-place Chevrolet Malibu.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser tied with the Honda CR-V for top spot in the compact multi-activity-vehicle category, while the Ford F-150 and Toyota Tundra were in a dead heat for the No.1 position in the all-important large-pickup sector.

While domestic auto makers narrowed the gap in initial vehicle quality, they didn’t fare as well in plant rankings.

Toyota’s Higashi-Fuji, Japan, facility, which produces the Lexus SC and Toyota Corolla, receives this year’s Platinum Award, with 29 defects per 100 vehicles.

The Top North or South American plant is Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s East Liberty, OH, facility that produces the Honda Civic, CR-V and Element.

In Asia, Toyota’s Fujimatsu, Japan, plant takes a Silver Award, while Daimler AG’s East London, South Africa, facility is named the top European/African facility.

bpope@wardsauto.com