Domestic automakers have long suggested that bad perceptions -- not declines in quality -- are the primary reason consumers have flocked to foreign competitors.
Though the top U.S. automakers (Chrysler, Ford and GM) have all struggled in past quality surveys, each appear to have made strides in recent years. Ford is now enjoying substantial success.
According to a survey conducted for Ford by the RDA Group of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Ford's newest models had fewer problems than any other full-line manufacturer. Ford also finished in a dead heat with top rival Toyota in customer satisfaction.
RDA's research is used by various automakers, both foreign and domestic, and has historically tracked closely with other independent research by firms such as J.D. Power and Associates. Its second quarter study showed new Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars and trucks had 1,185 issues per 1,000 vehicles. Toyota had 1,215 problems, while Honda Motor Co. had 1,291.
Although previously tied with Toyota, this marks the first time that Ford has claimed sole ownership of the top ranking since RDA Group began the survey in 1998.
"I'm not surprised," says John Wolkonowicz, senior auto analyst at consulting firm IHS Global Insight. "Ford has been on an increasing trajectory of quality for the last decade. They really weren't that bad 10 years ago. Most of the horrible American vehicle quality problems occurred in the 1980s and the very early 1990s. Really, by 2000, they were all pretty good and now they've gotten to the point where they're as good as the best."
Ford's rise in quality is part of a broader trend in which automakers have paid closer attention to refining their product. The gap between best and worst has narrowed considerably, says Jaime Mellen, vice president of the market research and consulting firm.
"In the last five years, all manufacturers have been improving in quality," says Mellen. "There's not the wide quality gap that there used to be between auto manufacturers. What we're seeing is the domestic brands, particularly at Ford and GM, have been making significant improvements in their vehicle quality."
The survey showed Toyota and Ford had an 80% positive customer satisfaction rating after three months of ownership. Though that might only represent a sliver of time over the lifetime of a car, it goes a long way toward shaping the perception of its owner.
"If the consumer has a few little problems in the beginning, it creates kind of a sour taste about the vehicle and that will continue throughout the ownership experience," says IHS Global Insight's Wolkonowicz. "But if the car was pretty good from the start and at 100,000 miles it needs a new alternator, 'Well, it's been a good car.' That's the importance of initial quality. In some way maybe that's more important for getting the message changed because most people don't keep cars long enough to understand how long they really can last."
Changing consumers' attitudes and associating American cars with quality is no easy task. In many ways, it is every bit as challenging a long-term equation to solve as the financial crisis, which has ravaged the auto industry over the last year.
As David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power, says, "truly closing the perception gap takes time. They didn't lose their original image overnight and they won't regain it overnight."