(Story viaJ.D. Power & Associates ) As the level of technology in today’s new cars and trucks increases, so too does the challenge for automakers to design and build vehicles with the high levels of initial quality that consumers have come to expect. In recent years, features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, side blind-zone alert, reverse-parking assist systems and many others have become standard equipment in many luxury car models. Some technologies, such as navigation and tire-pressure monitoring, can now be found in even the most economy-minded models. While all of this technology certainly has advanced the automobile as a concept, it often has presented challenges for automakers when it comes to new-vehicle quality.

One tech feature, in particular, that can give automakers headaches is hands-free communication systems. Indeed, in the recently releasedJ.D. Power and Associates 2011 Initial Quality Study(IQS), which measures new-vehicle quality after 90 days of ownership, is the second-most-frequently reported problem. Excessive wind noise is first and has been for many years).

To illustrate how significant the issue has become, in 2006 “Hands-free communication does not recognize command” did not even appear among the top 20 industry problems in the IQS study. During the past five years, the number of owner-reported problems with hands-free communication systems has increased by nearly 240% (to 6.1 problems per 100 vehicles in 2011 from 1.8 PP100 in 2007). This increase in problems mirrors the increase in the number of models equipped with a hands-free communication system, to 31% in 2011 from 10% in 2007.

The issue is gaining more attention in the industry, as an increasing number of models are equipped with hands-free technology. Unlike features such as tire-pressure-monitoring systems, however, hands-free communication isn’t federally mandated. Manufacturers have been adding the feature to improve driver safety and lessen the possibility of driver distraction as well as in response to laws in some states barring the use of handheld devices while driving. As of June 2011, eight states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving.

According to the2011 Initial Quality Study, overall new-vehicle quality in 2011 is higher than it has been in the past six years. In 2011, the initial quality of new vehicles averages 107 PP100, a slight improvement from 2010. During the past six years, the industry has improved at an average rate of 3% per year.

Other highlights of the 2011 IQS include:

  • Lexus ranks highest among all nameplates included in the study, achieving a score of 73 PP100, which is an improvement of 17% from last year. Toyota’s luxury brand also earns four segment awards this year, for the Lexus LS, Lexus GX, Lexus GS, and Lexus ES. Additionally, the LS is the highest-performing model in the industry in initial quality for a second consecutive year.
  • Honda ranks second among all nameplates (highest among non-premium brands), and receives seven initial quality awards this year, the highest number of awards that Honda has earned in IQS in any given year. Among the top performers are the Honda Fit, Honda Civic (tie), Honda Insight (tie), Honda Element, Honda Accord, Honda Ridgeline, and the Honda Accord Crosstour.
  • Overall, nine nameplates receive at least one IQS award for achieving the highest initial quality among competitors in a given segment. Other segment award recipients include: Mazda MX-5 Miata, Chevrolet HHR and Tahoe, Dodge Challenger, Chrysler Town & Country, Ford Taurus and F-150, Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class and E-Class, and the Cadillac Escalade.
  • Four models earn awards for the first time this year: Chevrolet HHR, Dodge Challenger, Honda Insight, and the Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class.
  • Three non-premium brands improved by more than 10 PP100 compared to last year-Mazda, Toyota, and GMC. Two brands achieve their highest-ever ranking among nameplates in the IQS: Honda (second) and Mazda (fifth).
  • Land Rover, owned by Indian carmaker Tata Motors, is the most-improved nameplate in the industry this year with an overall reduction of 47 PP100 compared to last year.
  • While domestic brands have made notable strides in recent years in improving initial quality, the quality gap has once again widened. The performance of domestic brands is 112 PP100 this year (4 PP100 higher than in 2010), while the Asian and European import brands score a combined 103 PP100-6 PP100 better than in 2010.
  • The all-new Hyundai Equus and the redesigned Dodge Durango have strong launch performances, and both rank second in their respective segments. The Hyundai Equus is the fourth-highest-performing model in the industry, trailing only the Lexus LS, Lexus ES, and Porsche 911.