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The Lexus IS 350 F Sport debuted at media previews for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2013.

Paul Sancya/The Associated Press

The auto industry's drive to offer more fuel efficient vehicles hit a pothole today, with news that thriftier four-cylinder engines and their transmissions have led to a decline in overall dependability.

The latest 2014 J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study might, in fact, be the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to the new fuel efficient technologies that are aimed at meeting government-mandated fuel economy rules for 2016 and beyond. In a nutshell, says J.D. Power vice-president David Sargent, consumers are dissatisfied with the downsized power trains.

"Such problems as engine hesitation, rough transmission shifts, and lack of power indicate that this is a continuing challenge," he said in releasing the 2014 VDS findings.

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The overall result: after 15 straight years of improving dependability, the auto industry went backwards in the performance of three-year-old vehicles. The 2014 industry average is now at 133 problems per 100 vehicles; in 2013 the problem rate was 126 per 100. J.D. Power said six of the seven additional new problems were attributed to engine and transmission problems.

What remains the same is the brand atop the VDS. Once again Toyota's Lexus luxury brand is ranked No. 1 for dependability and by a wide margin. Lexus models average 68 problems per 100 vehicles compared with 104 at No. 2 Mercedes-Benz, followed by 107 for General Motors' Cadillac brand. Among mainstream brands, GM's Buick ranks highest at 112, followed by Honda and Toyota each at 114.

On a corporate level, GM has more dependability segment winners than any other car company – eight GM models from its four brands (GMC, Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac) rank at the top of their segments. Toyota has seven segment winners for its three brands (Toyota, Lexus, Scion). Honda's two brands (Honda and Acura) have seven segment winners.

GM was the No. 1 auto maker for quality in the most recent J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, so the VDS results suggest that the General has been working at quality issues in earnest going back to 2011. That's interesting and for long-time industry watchers, downright surprising.

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