Expect no major quality improvement from any auto maker until advancements are made in the fields of in-vehicle electronics and electrical systems, says Consumer Reports magazine's chief automotive tester.

The publication's latest product reliability survey shows progress has stalled. The standings and scores are virtually the same as they have been since 2002, as Japanese auto makers rank first with 12 problems per 100 vehicles, followed by U.S. OEMs with 18 and Europeans with 20 to 21.

The same culprits keep popping up year after year. “It's nearly always electrical and power equipment,” says David Champion, senior director of testing at Consumer Reports.

But this could explain why Japanese OEMs such as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subaru, have so thoroughly dominated industry quality ratings.

“All the big electronics companies are based in Japan,” Champion says, citing brands such as Sony and Hitachi. “So when you start putting a lot of electronics and electrical systems in, I think they probably have the best infrastructure to make the sub-assemblies.”

The challenges are immense in integrating electronics and electrical systems. “The automobile has probably got the worst environment for electronics,” Champion says. “They're very dry, very dusty; or very hot and humid; or very cold and wet.”

But vehicles from Japanese manufacturers seem to hold up better. The magazine's latest study examined the problem rates of vehicles ranging from 1 to 5 years old.

On average, the study says, a 5-year-old vehicle from an Asian OEM had 44 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with 89 for U.S. OEMs and 97 for Europeans.

“Look at some of the (electrical) connectors on older Japanese cars,” he says. “It can be a real rust-bucket on the outside, but you pull the connector apart and the connections inside look absolutely brand new. Whereas with some of the domestic manufacturers, you pull their connectors apart and there's little bits of corrosion and dirt and stuff inside.”

He cites a reported problem with a BMW 5-Series, which features the often-criticized iDrive controller in the center console.

“All of a sudden the iDrive screen would just go blank,” Champion says. “You couldn't tune the radio. You didn't know anything that was going on with the vehicle.”

He also recalls a problem with an '03 Mercedes S-Class. Its in-vehicle systems were displayed on a screen equipped with a “back” button that malfunctioned.

“It would stick in, and that would just freeze the whole system. You couldn't go from navigation to radio, you couldn't access the heater system.”

Mercedes ranked last among the 30 brands evaluated in Consumer Reports' “5-year checkup” — a look at data for '01 models. On average, the tri-star brand recorded more than 100 problems per 100 vehicles, as did Cadillac and Volkswagen.

Lexus, Toyota and Acura topped that list with averages under 40 problems per 100 vehicles.

The magazine bases its reliability findings on survey data collected from its subscribers. The study contains data drawn from more than 1 million respondents. Among its “top picks” for '06:

  • Honda Civic (under $20,000)
  • Toyota Highlander Hybrid (SUV more than $30,000)
  • Honda Accord ($20,000-$30,000)
  • Acura TL (sedan $30,000-$40,000)
  • Infiniti M35 (luxury sedan)
  • Honda Ridgeline (pickup truck)
  • Honda Odyssey (minivan)