U.S. May Be Narrowing Car-Quality Gap

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One debate that never dies is who makes the best cars: the United States, Japan or Germany? U.S. automakers may be closing a perceived quality gap.


General Motors received some much-needed good news recently. Its vehicles performed unexpectedly well in the J.D. Power survey of initial reliability, which is closely followed by many people looking to buy cars and trucks. The results were important because GM, like Ford, faces a lingering perception among many consumers that its vehicles simply aren't made as well as Japanese and German cars. NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at how real the quality gap is between US and foreign cars.

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

If you want to understand the auto industry's problems right now, you can start with people like Charles Wilson of Mesa, Arizona. A few years ago, he stopped buying American cars and got himself a Mitsubishi Lancer. Now he won't drive anything else.

Mr. CHARLES WILSON (Mesa, Arizona): I've owned a Ford. I've owned a Chevy. I haven't liked either of them. They've both taken dives on me when I needed them the most to get to work. I was constantly working on the American cars. This car, very little maintenance, and it just keeps me going.

ZARROLI: Wilson works as a security guard at a Honda dealership, so he may be a little biased about Japanese cars, but there's no question that millions of people share his views and American automakers know it. It's one of the big reasons that the US auto industry has seen its market share shrink so much. But is it a fair perception? It is to David Champion who directs Consumer Reports' auto testing division.

(Soundbite of car door opening)

ZARROLI: One recent afternoon, Champion took me on a ride in a Honda Civic near his magazine's test track in rural Connecticut.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Consumer Reports): The car feels very agile, very well put together. There's no squeaks and rattles, even though this is a relatively bumpy road, and overall visibility is excellent. The...

ZARROLI: Then Champion got into a Saturn ION made by GM, which sells for roughly the same price as the Civic, about $18,000. Both cars are made in the United States and the Civic is even partly designed here, but Champion says the ION is simply not as good.

Mr. CHAMPION: And when you sort of first get in, there's a definite sort of low-rent appeal to the way the dash sort of feels. There's lots of cheap metal. The switches and the pieces that you touch don't have a nice easy feel to them.

ZARROLI: Champion says some Ford and GM cars are pretty well made, but he says there's no question that decades after imports began eating up Detroit's market share, Asian cars are still better deals with fewer maintenance problems and higher resell values.

Mr. CHAMPION: I always think whereas maybe some of the domestics, and GM included, tend to look at their previous product and make their new product better than the previous product, I think the Japanese went out to be world leaders in that class, so when their car came out, it was always at the top of its game.

ZARROLI: US automakers, not surprisingly, take issue with that. For one thing, they say, in an era when Ford owns Volvo and Chrysler has merged with Daimler-Benz, it's not always easy to say whether a car is American or not. Debbie Yeager is the director of global quality at Ford.

Ms. DEBBIE YEAGER (Ford): I don't think of it in terms of the Japanese anymore or the Koreans or anything else, because like you said, it's global and we all have global work forces, global supply bases.

ZARROLI: Moreover, a GM spokesman says the issue of quality is a complicated one, and within the full range of American cars, some are good and some are not so good, which can also be said of Japanese cars. But overall the vehicles sold by US-based companies have slowly gotten a lot better, he says, even if consumers don't always know it. Chance Parker agrees. Parker is executive director of product research and analysis for J.D. Power & Associates.

Mr. CHANCE PARKER (J.D. Power & Associates): There used to be a much bigger gap in the quality of domestic vehicles vs. Japanese or Asian vehicles. We have seen that gap continually narrow to where today in aggregate the gap really is essentially gone, if you want to speak in sweeping generalities.

ZARROLI: Parker's firm regularly surveys consumers who've owned their cars for 90 days to see how reliable they've been. Toyota was the big winner this year, but five GM cars led their categories: the Malibu, the Buick Century, the Buick LeSabre, the GMC Sierra and the Chevrolet Suburban. Parker says GM doesn't do as well in surveys on long-term reliability and overall appeal. Ford's Debbie Yeager suggests that surveys like these are somewhat misleading. She says that with the quality gap closing between cars, the differences between one model's reliability record and another's can be statistically insignificant.

Ms. YEAGER: I realize that to the customers, these surveys are very real, and first, second and third, you know, is something to really brag about, but it's very hard for us to say, you know, `Yeah, there's really something meaty here.'

ZARROLI: Still, she says, the perception among many consumers that US cars are inferior is a real one, and she says companies like Ford have no choice but to try to address it if they want to win some of those consumers back.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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