U.S. Auto Industry Battles Rivals, Image

While Detroit automakers have been busy trying to slash costs, they face another big challenge in changing their image for producing poor-quality cars. Some surveys indicate American vehicles actually are improving, even if many consumers haven't noticed.

To appreciate how hard it is for U.S. car companies to win back customers, spend a few minutes with Kendra Gray, a new mom and physical therapist who has come to Darcars Toyota in Silver Spring, Md. She wants to replace her six-year-old domestic car that has broken down.

"I have a Mercury [Sable] that's a terrible car, and I know Toyota is a good car, so I'm here to get a Toyota," she said. "Everything is going wrong. It's not running properly."

Gray has driven Toyota Corollas in the past, and now she's returning to what she trusts.

Like many customers, Gray has a strong loyalty to the brand. She said she has no desire to look at other cars.

According to global marketing information firm J.D. Power and Associates, 42 percent of all car buyers are like Gray; they won't even look at a vehicle built by a U.S. company.

Dave Sargent, J.D. Power's vice president of auto research, said Gray and others like her are making a mistake.

"Many consumers still have a view of the Detroit automakers that the products are not as reliable as the imports, but what our studies show is that that is simply not true," he said.

Perceptions Take Years to Change

Detroit has been closing the quality gap in recent years, Sargent said. In a study this summer of three-year-old vehicles, J.D. Power said Buick tied Lexus as the most dependable brand. In another J.D. Power study on quality, Ford won in five categories — more than any other company.

But Sargent said when it comes to cars, it takes years for perception to catch up to reality.

"People aren't buying new cars every day, so for a lot of people, their perception of quality ... is based on the vehicle they currently own, which may be one they bought five or six years ago," he said.

General Motors admits that it fell behind on quality. Some of its own workers also blame GM for holding on to outdated designs.

Ronald Rogers works at a plant that makes transmissions for GM trucks in Baltimore County, Md. He said GM "got a little complacent."

"They weren't changing the body styles but once every seven years," he said. "The GMC minivan, I think they kept that body style for 15 years or so."

GM officials said they are now trying to lure people back to the showroom with more appealing designs.

There are signs that they are making some progress. Linwood Giles is a retired GM factory worker who lives outside Baltimore. He said that 10 years ago, he never would have bought a Buick.

"It looked like it was for an old, old person. I'm telling you, nobody bought them except an old person," he said.

But Giles now drives a 2006 Lucerne that looks nothing like some of its boxy ancestors. It is a sleek, metallic red, with chrome wheels and a thin gold stripe down the side.

"They did such dramatic styling change. People ask me, 'What is it?' I say, 'A Buick,' " he said.

Persuading an auto worker to consider a Buick is one thing, but getting the legions who swear by Toyota and Honda to do so is quite another.

J.D. Power's Sargent said that could take years.

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