DEBORAH AMOS, host:
American automakers face their own labor trouble with a Chrysler strike possible today. The companies are also struggling with their image. U.S. automakers have a reputation for making poor quality cars. Some survey say American vehicles are actually improving, even if many consumers haven't noticed.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: To appreciate how hard it is for U.S. car companies to win back customers, spend a few minutes with Kendra Gray(ph). She's a physical therapist and a new mom. And this evening she's come to DARCARS Toyota in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her goal: replace a six-year-old domestic car that's broken down.
Ms. KENDRA GRAY (Physical Therapist): I have a Mercury that's a terrible car. And I know that Toyota is a good car, so I'm here to get a Toyota.
LANGFITT: Wow, what kind of Mercury do you have?
Mr. GRAY: A Mercury Sable.
LANGFITT: Gray has driven Toyota Corollas in the past. Now she's returning to what she trusts. Like many customers this evening, Gray has a loyalty to the brand that almost makes you wonder.
Are you going to look at anything other than the Toyota?
Mr. GRAY: No, nuh-uh, I'm hooked.
LANGFITT: And you don't work for Toyota.
Mr. GRAY: No, I don't work for Toyota.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GRAY: I wish I did, maybe I could get a cheaper deal on the car.
LANGFITT: According to J.D. Power and Associates, the global marketing information firm, 42 percent of all car buyers are just like Kendra Gray: they won't even look at a car built by a U.S. company.
Dave Sargent is J.D. Power's vice president of auto research. He says people like Gray are making a mistake.
Mr. DAVE SARGENT (J.D. Power): Many consumers still have a view of the Detroit automakers that the products are not as reliable as those of the import. What our studies show is that's just simply not true.
LANGFITT: Sargent says in recent years the Detroit companies have been closing the quality gap. In a study this summer of three-year-old vehicles, J.D. Power says Buick tied Lexus as the most dependable brand. That's right, Buick. In another J.D. Power study on quality, Ford won in five categories - more than any other company. But Sargent says when it comes to cars it takes years for perception to catch up to reality.
Mr. SARGENT: People own their vehicles for quite a long time. People are not buying new cars every day. So for a lot of people, their perception of the quality of the different manufacturers is based on the vehicle they currently own, which may be one that they bought, you know, five, six years ago.
LANGFITT: 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.
Mr. RONALD ROGERS (Employee, General Motors): I think GM got a little complacent. They wouldn't change any body styles but once every seven years. The GMC minivan - I think they kept that body style for 15 years or so.
LANGFITT: The GM officials say they are now trying to lure people back to the showroom with more appealing designs, and there are signs they're making some progress. Linwood Giles is a retired GM factory worker who lives outside Baltimore. He says 10 years ago he would have never bought a Buick.
Mr. LINWOOD GILES (Retired General Motors Worker): It looked like it was for an old, old person. I'm telling you, nobody bought them except an old person. I mean, it was just a regular bad-looking car.
LANGFITT: But Giles now drives a 2006 Lucerne that looks nothing like some of its boxy ancestors. He shows it off to me in the parking lot of his union local. It's a sleek metallic red with chrome wheels and a thin gold stripe down the side.
Mr. GILES: They did such a dramatic styling change, and everybody asked me, what is it? I say it's a Buick.
LANGFITT: Of course persuading an autoworker to consider a Buick is one thing; getting the legions who swear by Toyota and Honda to do so is quite another. Sargent, the research official at J.D. Power, says that could take years.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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