"The new IQS is here! The new IQS is here!" (With appreciation to The Jerk.)

Yes, Fools, the 2009 edition of J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study was released on Monday, and the parsing has already begun. The study serves as an industry benchmark for new-vehicle quality measured at 90 days of ownership.

Top honors went to foreign automakers like Porsche and Lexus. But just because it's imported doesn't mean it's good, as BMW's Mini, Tata's (NYSE:TTM) Land Rover, and Daimler's (NYSE:DAI) Smart filled out the bottom ranks of this year's survey.

Maybe good news is no news
Some critics have trashed the survey in the past as little more than a marketing tool for J.D. Power parent company McGraw-Hill (NYSE:MHP). BusinessWeek, itself a McGraw-Hill company, took one look at the improved performances at Ford (NYSE:F), GM, and Chrysler, and pronounced them a nonevent.

The Ford and Chevy nameplates both clocked in with more than the industry average of 108 "problems" per 100 cars. Ford (102 problems) earned the No. 8 spot, with Chevrolet (103 problems) at No. 9.

Lexus topped the list with 84 "problems" per 100 vehicles.

Toyota (NYSE:TM) edged out Ford and Chevy at No. 7, with 101 problems for each 100 cars. Fifth-ranked Honda (NYSE:HMC) had just 99, and Nissan (NASDAQ:NSANY) checked in at No. 13, with two problems more than the industry average.

But to hear BW tell it, Detroit's got to do more than just compete head-to-head with Tokyo -- it needs to score some actual wins.

No ... good news is good news
OK. Fair point. There's essentially one problem's worth of difference per car sold separating the "best" brand on IQS (Lexus) from the worst (Mini). And a "problem" in the context of this survey can consist of something as flimsy as: "The Mini needs more cupholders." So the good news for car buyers is that most automakers are churning out equally good products.

But IQS is about more than just brand-quality metrics. It's also about bragging rights on specific vehicles. And it's here that I think investors can find a useful takeaway in this week's report:

  • In the categories of "subcompact," "compact," "compact sporty," and "compact premium sporty," every single top three vehicle bears a foreign nameplate.
  • Conversely, American brands fare better in the "midsize," "midsize sporty," and "large" car categories, as well as the "midsize" and "large" SUV and "large" pickup competitions.

Foolish takeaway
For all the talk of how Detroit now "gets it," and will make smaller, fuel-efficient cars that compete with foreign rivals in a time of high gas prices, in reality ... Detroit ... doesn't ... get ... it. U.S. automakers continue to build great big cars that U.S. consumers love when gas is cheap (as it seemed to be heading, if ever so fleetingly). And when it isn't? Oil high -- Detroit die.

How has the reality of vehicle quality changed over the past few years? Read all about it in:

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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Nor does he own a car, now that his trusty S-10 has finally bit the dust. Nissan Motor Co. is a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation. The McGraw-Hill Companies is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.