There was a time when buying certain cars from Chrysler, GM or Ford was a risky proposition. Poorly engineered vehicles were sloppily thrown together by arrogant UAW members.

Back in the 1970s, I worked for my older brother at his Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealership in Richmond, MI. The joke at the dealership was that if you listened carefully, you could hear new Dodge Aspens and Plymouth Volares rust as they sat in the showroom. When my father's new 1978 Chrysler Cordoba (say it with me, "Fine Corinthian leather") was delivered from the factory, its build quality was so bad that it required three days of repair work just to make it ready for delivery.

Many can recount personal anecdotes like these. To be honest, I've heard my fair share of horror stories regarding foreign cars, too. Ask anybody who owned an early Honda Civic how they survived after a winter of slogging salted Midwestern roadways. The answer will be, "Not very well." Mercedes endured a terrible spell of quality issues early this decade, with issues including faulty electronics and poor assembly quality. Even the revered masters of quality at Toyota have suffered quality glitches, with several prominent lapses in 2006 and 2007.

Manufacturing Quality

While anecdotes are fun to tell ... kind of like comparing scars ... they bring up a good question. How does one "prove" that one manufacturer or another produces a quality product? The answer is in the numbers.

Several companies exist for the sole purpose of evaluating, measuring and reporting on the quality of automobiles. Many American consumers recognize the J.D. Power and Associates name. Most recognized for its automotive awards, the company statistically measures satisfaction using consumer-completed surveys for everything from cars to insurance to cell phones. All of their data comes directly from owners and/or lessees.

The annual reports from Harbour Consulting also measure quality, but from the manufacturing side of the business. The company measures plant productivity, and has demonstrated that there is a solid correlation between increased manufacturing productivity and product quality.

Just the Facts

So what do the numbers from Harbour indicate? Does Detroit still build junk? Nope. Multiple measurements prove that Detroit has significantly narrowed the quality gap overall, and in some segments actually lead perennial front-runners from Asia. Here are some facts:

  • From 2002 to 2006, the gap between the single most efficient factory (Nissan) and the least efficient (Chrysler) narrowed from over 11 hours to less than three hours -- a four-fold decrease. It's important to realize that with each gain in efficiency, research shows that there is a corresponding quality increase. Furthermore, these gains are especially impressive as vehicles are increasing in complexity every year.
  • Some of Ford and GM's most popular models are built by top-ranking factories. These models include the Ford Escape, Taurus, Chevrolet Equinox, Impala and Buick LaCrosse.
  • In 2006, looking at the top performing assembly plants in the country, GM operates three of the top four facilities.

It is true that in some categories Toyota, Honda and Nissan respectively hold advantages over the domestic manufacturers. Toyota especially has an industry-leading stamping process that turns out body panels. Also, in general, no other manufacturer can assemble an engine as efficiently as Toyota. But the trends show the gap is closing, and what used to be a huge disparity is significantly smaller. In a specific category where GM and Toyota compete directly -- the assembly of overhead cam 6-cylinder engines -- GM is minimally quicker than the efficiency leader.

"When it became clear that we really needed to improve our quality a number of years ago, we were still defining quality as things that didn't break or didn't go wrong. When you look at quality from that perspective, things looked pretty good." says Gary White, GM North American VP and Vehicle Line Executive. However, White admits that consumers have never looked at quality that way. If 90 percent of the things on the vehicle work, that means 10 percent don't. Today, even a single problem can keep a vehicle from being a quality star. "Studying how the Japanese manufacturers approached quality helped us change our point of view, and now we're well beyond looking at quality in that outdated way. Our design and build quality has improved dramatically in recent years. You can really see a difference, especially in new GM products like the 2008 Chevy Malibu."

Measuring Quality

These production process improvements reflect genuine upgrades in design and the assembly processes, so credit is shared between the manufacturers and the line workers. The results of these improvements are measurable. Just this summer, J.D. Power released the results of an extensive study of 97,000 new vehicle owners and lessees. The study looked at the number of problems customers reported in the first three months of ownership.

For every 100 vehicles, the average number of problems was 125 ... meaning that just about every vehicle had at least one issue. Porsche led all others with a rating of just 91 issues per 100 vehicles (9 out of 10 Porsches had at least one issue), while Land Rover brought up the rear with an underwhelming 170 issues per 100 vehicles -- meaning that just about every Land Rover had one or two issues. (Compared to 2006, however, Land Rover improved its performance by 30 issues per 100 vehicles. That's going the right direction, chaps.) On the top-10 list, Lincoln's average was above the perceived quality leaders from Asia and Europe; Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz. Ford aced out Acura, BMW and Audi.

Ford's Anne Marie Gattari comments, "In the last few years, we've really raised our own bar. We knew we needed to close the quality gap before consumers would consider buying a Ford, Lincoln, Mercury or Mazda. The fact that our cars are now recommended buys by Consumers Reports, and that we have many cars ranking high on J.D. Power surveys confirms this." She continues, "We also conduct our own internal quality studies, and by these numbers, we've closed the gap with Toyota, who everybody recognizes as the industry's leader." Regarding the quality of the just launched 2008 Ford Focus, Gattari says, "We're not releasing anything from plants until they meet our new standards. This ensures that customers get great quality vehicles right from the start of production."

Domestic Quality Isn't an Oxymoron

Combining the data from Harbour and J.D. Power makes several high-quality choices clear. The combined data suggests these best bets:

  • Ford Taurus
  • Mercury Sable
  • Buick LaCrosse
  • Pontiac Grand Prix
  • Chevrolet Silverado Pickup
  • Ford F-Series Pickup

Many other domestic cars have impressive records as indicated by either manufacturing or initial quality measures. These winners indicate that quality can come from Detroit. Pick wisely and enjoy the drive.


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