Toyota Motor Corp. tumbled to third place in Consumer Reports' annual quality survey, while Ford Motor Co. narrowed its gap with the Japanese, leaving the other domestic car manufacturers in the dust.
The results of the influential survey, which were presented Tuesday to the Automotive Press Association, were a blow to Japan's leading automaker, which has long set the standard for quality in the automotive industry. But they offered some much-needed good news for Ford, which is struggling to stem a decade-long decline in U.S. market share.
David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' auto test center, said Ford's quality remains below Toyota and Honda, but added the Dearborn automaker is now competing with those brands instead of with the other U.S. manufacturers.
"They're definitely in what we would call the top tier," he said. "They are making serious inroads."
Still, 90 percent of the cars and trucks on Consumer Reports' list of the most-reliable vehicles are from Japanese manufacturers. In fact, Toyota still had more models on that list than any other automaker.
Models from U.S. manufacturers accounted for nearly half the vehicles on the Consumer Reports' list of the "least reliable" vehicles of the year. They included 13 models from General Motors Corp., six from Chrysler LLC and one from Ford. Most of the other models on that list came from European brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Audi.
Champion said Ford's quality improvements appear to be real and sustained. He said the quality of Ford's cars and trucks has been improving consistently for the past five years.
Ford's big bugaboo, he added, is its products' styling.
"The problem with Ford vehicles is that they're a bit boring," he said.
While Ford's quality has been improving, Toyota's has been declining.
"Just because a vehicle is made in Japan, doesn't mean it has bulletproof quality," Champion said.
Consumer Reports has withdrawn its recommendations for three key Toyota models: the four-wheel-drive V-8 version of the Toyota Tundra pickup, the all-wheel-drive version of the Lexus GS sedan and the V-6 version of the top-selling Toyota Camry. All three models are now rated "below average" for reliability.
It was the first time since Consumer Reports started recommending cars in 1996 that a Camry model has not earned Consumer Reports' vaunted "recommended" rating. Champion said the V-6 Camry suffered from transmission problems.
In the past, Consumer Reports has automatically recommended each new version of Toyota, Lexus and Scion models that have already earned that rating because of Toyota's strong quality record. That will no longer be the case.
Champion said new versions of models from each of the three Toyota brands will now be subject to the same scrutiny as models from other automakers.
"I think Toyota knows it. (CEO Katsuaki) Watanabe has said they've got some quality issues," Champion said. "If someone's going to put it right quickly, it's going to be Toyota."
Restoring quality at Toyota has been one of Watanabe's priorities since he became CEO in June 2005.
Toyota representatives in the audience at Consumer Reports' Tuesday presentation reacted coolly to the findings and tried to downplay their importance.
"We're going to look forward to analyzing their data in depth," said Toyota spokesman John McCandless, who said Toyota's internal quality studies have not identified problems with any of the three models given bad marks by Consumer Reports. "I don't think it will impact sales."
Some industry observers disagreed. "I would expect them to say that," said Erich Merkle of IRN Inc. "It is important. A lot of people who aren't car people look at Consumer Reports."
That certainly is what Ford is hoping. "People do consider it when they purchase a vehicle," said Mike Hardie, global manager of quality data for Ford. "It's time for people to recognize that we are one of the players."
He said Ford's gain is partly the result of a real commitment to quality on the part of employees at all levels. Hardie also credits a new, high-tech tracking system that logs every warranty repair and provides daily feedback to Ford factories from dealers around the country.
"It something we just do now," Hardie said.
He said Ford has seen a 50 percent reduction in warranty issues over the past three years alone.
As The Detroit News first reported Friday, the latest initial quality survey commissioned by Ford found its products are in a statistical dead heat with Toyota's.
Champion said 93 percent of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models scored average or better in the annual reliability survey, adding that the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan are among the most reliable vehicles on the road today. Along with the V-6 version of the Ford F-150 pickup, they account for three of only four domestic models that made the magazine's "most reliable" list for 2007. The Pontiac Vibe also received that designation.
Ford's Land Rover marque remained the least reliable brand, with Cadillac and Hummer receiving the lowest ratings among the domestics.
"We're focused on what we need to do," said Bob Ottolini, executive director for global product development quality at GM, adding that the automaker believes it has fixed many of the problems with the full-size SUV that were downgraded in this year's report. "We've always had to earn our way onto the list."
Champion said GM's quality is "up and down" and said there was "no consistency" at Chrysler.
The results of this year's quality study were based on customer survey results returned for 1.3 million vehicles.
In addition, Champion and his team put each vehicle through 50 tests to evaluate everything from braking and handling to noise and ergonomics.
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