Car Experts Compare U.S., Foreign Vehicles

Many consumers believe Detroit-made cars aren't as good or as reliable as those made by other foreign companies. U.S. auto executives disagree. They say they can now compete with anyone. Independent experts offer their assessment.

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A lot of people have unkind things to say about cars made in Detroit. The auto companies say most of the criticism is unfair and out of date. NPR's Frank Langfitt has spent the week in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show, and he set out across the exhibition floor to try to separate fact from fiction.

FRANK LANGFITT: This was General Motors' CEO Rick Wagoner in a recent interview with our own Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of NPR interview)

Mr. RICK WAGONER (CEO, General Motors): Our vehicles are, in many cases, leading or at parity with the best of the nine U.S.-based manufacturers.

LANGFITT: Really? I talked to some independent experts at the auto show to see if that was true.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Senior Director, Auto Test Division, Consumer Reports): My name is David Champion. I'm director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports.

LANGFITT: Consumer Reports is the bible for car buyers, so Champion ought to know if Wagoner's claim holds up.

Mr. CHAMPION: GM has produced some really, really good cars - the Cadillac CTS, the new Chevrolet Malibu, the GMC Acadia, Outlook, Enclave SUV, all really good cars. Up there with Honda and Toyota in terms of how they perform.

LANGFITT: Wow! Sounds good. But Champion says there's something else.

Mr. CHAMPION: Unfortunately, reliability has been their big problem.

LANGFITT: In the 1970s and 1980s, Detroit cars often broke down and stranded customers. That poor quality cost the companies a generation of buyers. Today, Champion says Detroit's cars are more reliable, but overall, he says, they haven't caught up with the Japanese.

Mr. CHAMPION: It's probably a cultural thing in some ways that the Japanese put a lot of emphasis on making sure that every single detail is looked at, developed, validated.

LANGFITT: In some cases, GM has matched the Japanese on reliability and then slipped back. Champion and I strolled over to the Saturn exhibit. I asked Champion about Saturn because of my own experience.

In 1994, I went to Consumer Reports, and I saw that Saturn and the Toyota Corolla were dead even for reliability. And I bought one.

Mr. CHAMPION: Yeah.

LANGFITT: Then I went back to Consumer Reports 2004, and the reliability had just completely dropped off. What happened?

Mr. CHAMPION: Saturn, really, at its inception was exactly what GM needed. But I think due to internal infighting with the other divisions of who gets what and what car goes where, you know, they actually starved Saturn of new product. Until today it doesn't really exist on the consumer's radar screen.

LANGFITT: Next I met up with Karl Brauer. He's editor in chief of Edmunds.com, the consumer auto Web site. Brauer acknowledges that the Detroit companies still lag a bit on reliability. But he says the range has narrowed so much that he doesn't think it's a big deal.

Mr. KARL BRAUER (Editor In Chief, Edmunds.com): The experience, even 10 or 15 years ago, between the best-built car and the worst-built car from the consumer's perspective was pretty drastic. You know, it was a difference between never going to the dealer and being left on the side of the road. Now the difference is, did I have to go to the dealer once in a two-year period when I wasn't supposed to because something happened or never in a two-year period?

LANGFITT: I asked Brauer what domestic car he would recommend to his mom? He takes me to see this.

Unidentified Man: Taurus is a very important product of the Ford Car Company.

LANGFITT: It's a major redesign. Long gone is the car's iconic egg shape. The new version is a sporty sedan with a raised hood and sleek lines.

Mr. BRAUER: This does not look like - well, let's be honest - a Hertz special. It doesn't look like a rental car that escaped from the line.

LANGFITT: New models like this are important to Detroit because, as Brauer says, even though consumers talk about reliability, many are still moved by looks. And that may be one of the best ways for Detroit to lure skeptical customers back to their showrooms. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.

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