Automotive: The truth behind the auto raters who always seem to have good news.

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When J.D. Power rates cars, consumers and manufacturers listen, and favorable results can boost sales. But what is really behind the influential rating? Here are some frequently asked questions.

What is J.D. Power & Associates?
A marketing firm that conducts a wide range of surveys in such varied fields as healthcare and travel.

Who does the testing?
Actually JDPA doesn't test cars. The company sends out questionnaires to car owners, who tell them what's wrong with their particular car. In 2001, more than 40,000 survey responses were used to compile the Vehicle Dependability Study.

How are cars rated?
By the total number of problems per car. Each reported problem counts equally: A broken radio knob is weighted the same as a blown transmission. The company studies cars that have been on the road a while. This year, 1997 cars were studied.

For whom is the survey intended?
Car manufacturers, some of whom use JDPA's rankings in their ads. "We're not Consumer Reports," says JDPA spokesman John Tews.

Why rank the best cars but not the worst (see list below)?
JDPA used to rank the losers too, but stopped because the media focused more attention on the bad performers. "What we're trying to do first and foremost is help automakers make a better product," Tews says. "We don't believe that spreading bad news is going to help our clients."

Manufacturer : Problems per car

Lexus : 1.73
Infiniti : 2.19
Jaguar : 2.50
Lincoln : 2.53
Acura : 2.55
Honda : 2.78
Toyota : 2.78
Cadillac : 2.85
Porsche : 2.92
Mercedes-Benz : 2.96
Buick : 2.98
Mercury : 3.11
BMW : 3.20
Audi : 3.28
Subaru : 3.53
Oldsmobile : 3.54
Saturn : 3.55
Ford  : 3.61
Saab : 3.62
Nissan : 3.71
Industry average  : 3.82

Finishing at or below industry average in alphabetical order are: Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Eagle, GMC, Geo, Hyundai, Isuzu, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Plymouth, Pontiac, Suzuki, Volkswagen, and Volvo.