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American Cars — Reliability versus Desirability

Several months ago I wrote in this space about the "Return of the Great American Car." In that column I heralded the arrival of an all-new Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette, Pontiac GTO and Chrysler 300, among other exciting domestic products about to hit showrooms. The most compelling aspect of these models is that they are all cars, a segment of the market the domestics have tragically ignored over the past decade. I didn't go so far as to say "the American automakers are officially 'back'" but I certainly feel they may be on the right track.

Now come the latest findings from a Consumer Reports reliability survey, in which American cars performed better than European brands. This is the first time the domestics, as a group, have beaten the Europeans on reliability ratings in 20 years. Of course, headlines across the news media, from USA Today to CBS, were blasting the findings across their front pages. "Detroit's Big Three Make Gains," reported, while USA Today said, "USA beats Europe for reliability" in its headline. Sure enough, the Ford Focus was shown to have half as many problems as the BMW 7 Series. And the Buick Regal proved to be the most reliable "family sedan" in the survey, beating out Toyota's Camry and Nissan's Maxima.

Well, that's it then — the Americans are now officially "back" right? Not exactly. As with most news stories, you have to dig deeper than the headlines, or even the first few paragraphs to get the whole story. That same Consumer Reports survey also stated that while the domestics were just edging out the European brands (18 problems per 100 cars to Europe's 20 problems per 100), the Japanese and Korean cars still have a healthy lead at 12 problems per 100 vehicles. In pure mathematical terms, that means Asian vehicles are 50-percent more reliable than American vehicles. And by the way, the industry average is 17 problems per 100 vehicles, so the Americans as a group are still "below average" in terms of reliability.

And in yet another finding from the survey, the European brands as a group scored better than the domestics in terms of loyalty. More owners of European vehicles said they would buy their vehicles again than did owners of American models — this in spite of the poor reliability reports for the Europeans. For instance, the Mini Cooper did poorly on the reliability side of the survey, but scored high in the "buy again" section of the survey.

Anecdotally I can relate to these findings. In just the past two weeks, I've heard from two co-workers whose sentiments echo these findings. In one case, the recent buyer of a slightly used Mercedes C-Class told me his car had suffered two mechanical problems in just the four months he's owned the vehicle, one being a burned-out motor in the driver's power window. When I asked him if he regretted his purchase his response was immediate, "No! I love my car. And the service experiences have been really good. They treat me very well." In another case a co-worker was on the verge of buying a new Cadillac CTS sedan. He had test-driven the car and was arranging financing when he made a last-minute inquiry regarding a certified pre-owned BMW 5 Series for roughly the same money. After one test-drive he was hooked, and the BMW was soon in his garage. When I asked him why, he told me, "The CTS drove well, but the interior didn't speak to me. It just seemed too cheap for a car in that class."

This gets to the crux of the challenge facing American automakers. While design and reliability are important (and have been largely addressed in recent years), there is more to building a great car than just making sure it is screwed together properly. As my co-worker noted, a car must "speak" to its owner on a level that can't be tracked in a reliability report (though this capacity can and will be reflected in a loyalty report). BMWs have traditionally excelled in this area, and anyone who's driven the latest 7 Series knows that, in spite of its electrical gremlins and complex user controls, the car still "speaks" to its driver and passengers (but to Ford's credit, so does the Focus). Also, let's not forget that while the American brands scored better than the Europeans, it was by a small margin. Their reliability ratings overall are still below average, and when things do go wrong on a domestic product, the service experience becomes very crucial. How many domestic customers would make the same comments about their local dealer as my Mercedes-owning co-worker?

I'm heartened by the apparent improvements in reliability for domestic cars and trucks. But reliability ratings are only one aspect of vehicle ownership. Let's hope Chrysler, Ford and GM can "speak" to the rest of them.

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