Lexus, the luxury division of Toyota Motor Corp., scored highest for the seventh straight year in the J.D. Power and Associates vehicle durability study released Thursday.

The study examines the durability of vehicles after four or five years of ownership and is based on survey responses from more than 40,000 owners and lessees of 1997 model year cars and trucks.

According to the study, Lexus vehicles had 173 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with an industry average in the study of 382 problems per 100 vehicles.

"They have a focus on long-term quality other manufacturers don't," said Brian Walters, director of product research at J.D. Power.

Lexus' down-market cousin, Toyota, tied for sixth with Honda Motor Corp. with 278 problems per 100 vehicles.

Infiniti, the luxury division of Nissan Motors Corp., was second, with 219 problems. The Nissan nameplate, however, was far behind with 371 problems, but still lower than the industry average.

Of the U.S. nameplates, Lincoln, produced by Ford Motor Co., scored best with 253 problems per 100 vehicles, putting it in fourth place, closely following Ford's Jaguar unit, which had 250 problems.

Ford or one of its foreign units, which include Jaguar and Mazda, placed 12 vehicles among the top three in the 17 categories surveyed.

"It was about that time when Ford placed an emphasis on long-term, 10 year, 150,000 mile durability standards," said Ford spokeswoman Marcy Evans.

General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division edged out its higher priced German rival, Mercedes-Benz, with 285 problems versus Mercedes-Benz's 296. GM's Buick division had 298 problems reported, compared with 320 for BMW.

Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Eagle, GMC, Geo, Hyundai, Isuzu, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Plymouth, Pontiac, Suzuki, Volkswagen and Volvo were either at or below the industry average.

Since an increasing number of parts and components are outsourced, manufacturers must work more closely with their suppliers to ensure quality, Walters said.

Some of the most common problems reported were related to the engine and transmission and noisy brakes, he said.

Those types of problems can be especially problematic to owners since repairs can be costly, and after four or five years, the vehicle is generally no longer covered by its warranty.