When it comes to vehicle quality, the American auto market has gone through two distinct periods since World War II — and now is beginning a third, in which consumer definitions of vehicle quality are all over the map.

Ford Mustang

When it comes to vehicle quality, the American auto market has gone through two distinct periods since World War II — and now is beginning a third, in which consumer definitions of vehicle quality are all over the map.

During the First Era of Quality, from the '50s into the '70s, cars suffered from glaring production defects as a matter of course. But the domestic auto industry had such a stranglehold on the market that consumers expected no better — and "Made in Japan" still meant "Ready to Fall Apart."

But the Japanese turned around and actually defined the Second Era of Quality in the U.S. market. Beginning in the '80s, Toyota, Honda and others fielded vehicles of such high production standards that the U.S. Big Three simply had to get their acts together or face extinction.

Over the past two decades, the automotive industry has dramatically improved new vehicle manufacturing quality, for a 20-year improvement rate of more than 120 percent, according to J.D. Power surveys.

This has ushered in a Third Era of Quality, one defined by relative parity in the actual performance, fit and finish, and durability of vehicles among all the global automakers that supply the U.S. market.

"In general now, there isn't a whole lot of difference between any of the companies in this market," said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, a Bandon, Oregon, automotive research company. "You're just not going to make a real bad mistake no matter what vehicle you pick. That's first and foremost: You don't have to give it nearly as much thought as your parents did."

Consumers Apply Varying Standards of Vehicle Quality

Consumers and the automotive industry remain as interested as ever in the relative quality of makes and models. It's just that consumers are defining "quality" differently now than in the First and Second Eras of Quality. Their perceptions vary widely about what quality means and how much it should factor into what they decide to purchase.

Here are five major aspects of quality that consumers are applying in the purchase of an automobile today:

Long-term reputation: Ingrained notions of vehicle quality dictate much consumer behavior, often overriding the latest relative data on manufacturing quality.

The best current illustration of this phenomenon is Ford vehicles' tremendous leaps in a number of measures of initial manufacturing quality, especially in their newer models such as the Edge and Fusion. At the same time, Toyota has been bungling its performance in factory quality lately, forcing the company to issue a number of huge recalls for some of its newest models, including its important new Tundra pickup truck.

Yet Ford's sales continue to plummet month by month in the U.S. market, while Toyota's extend their amazing upward trend. Consumers clearly are acting in part on the two brands' long-term reputations for quality.

"Products have such a long shelf life, and 90 percent of Toyotas on the road today were built in a high-quality environment," explained Alan Dean, vice president of business innovation for Toronto-based BrandIntel, which analyzes online discussions of brand quality. "And Ford is doing surprisingly well in quality studies today, but 90 percent of their vehicles are older and were made when the quality wasn't there."

Vehicle Class: Whether a vehicle achieves a quality watermark with consumers often depends on who those buyers are and what kind of vehicle they're purchasing.

If a small vehicle achieves expected fuel-economy criteria, for instance, its buyers tend to associate it with quality, according to CNW's consumer surveys. At the same time, luxury buyers' notions of quality are inordinately tied to fit-and-finish issues.

And for pickup truck buyers, neither of those things matters nearly as much as whether the powertrain provides the expected oomph. "The truck can rattle all it wants, but if the diesel engine is strong and does everything it's supposed to, then the perception of quality of the whole vehicle increases," Spinella said.

Features: Many consumers base their ideas of quality not on whether things work right or not in a vehicle, but on design and execution. "If a product is simple and easy to use, many consumers associate that with quality, regardless of dependability," said Clifton Lambreth, a retail-zone manager for Ford in the Midwest.

A preoccupation with features can create negative or positive notions in consumers' minds — but either type can powerfully shape perceptions of whether a vehicle is up to snuff.

Repairability: This factor becomes a quality criterion for consumers in two ways. First, some automakers are willing to stand behind their products for longer than others. General Motors and Hyundai have staked a good part of their selling propositions on the fact that they alone, among major manufacturers, have 100,000-mile powertrain warranties.

Another aspect of repairability is how easy or difficult it is to get a vehicle repaired. There's an interesting twist: By this measure, luxury vehicles often are of poorer quality than less expensive ones because they tend to be more loaded with complex electronic gear.

Dealership performance: How dealers treat their customers is a huge component of vehicle quality in the eyes of many consumers, because owning and maintaining an automobile establishes a relationship with a manufacturer — and the dealer is generally the face of that relationship.

Dealer handling of consumers, in fact, shapes much of our perception of a make as a quality, stand-up brand. On the other hand, some consumers have come to rely on specific dealers as guarantors of a quality relationship, and they're willing to buy a variety of vehicles from them.

"If you're a dealer organization that eliminates those hassles and problems and develops those relationships regardless of what kind of car you sell, you're a winner," said Jim Brown, a veteran auto retailer with 21 dealerships in the Cleveland area.

When Quality Doesn't Seem to Matter

Actually, increasing numbers of consumers don't give quality much thought at all in their automotive purchases. An example is those who lease, rather than buy their vehicles. "Lessees tend to be less critical of, or even concerned about, quality because they know it's not their car and they can just get rid of it in a couple of years anyway," Spinella said.

A second type of consumer is totally focused on forging an emotional connection with their machine. Product quality concerns really don't impose themselves on their radar, because the actual manufacturing quality of most makes and models cluster relatively closely together. Land Rovers, the Cadillac Escalade and the Chrysler 300 have elicited strong consumer passion, although they aren't necessarily manufacturing-quality standouts.

"The more that actual quality is a non-differentiator," said Matt May, author of a new book on Toyota's creative management, "the more you have to focus on the emotional side."

Dale Buss is a journalist based near Detroit.