In my June 2005 auto-industry article entitled "De-junking the American Automobile Industry," I reported that "the media hasn't always been forthcoming with the facts" when they compare home team players GM and Ford against their foreign competition.
Fortunately, Editorial Director, Mark Bilek, for Consumer Guide Automotive not only saw the obvious but was bold enough to report on it. He says the second most popular question he is asked is "When will domestic cars ever catch up with Japanese quality?" The problem with questions like this is that they are no longer thoughtful but have solidified as an eternal system of belief. Even though the Chevy Impala beats the Toyota Camry in initial quality, the Buick LeSabre was awarded the best premium mid-size car, and the Ford Thunderbird was ranked the most dependable entry luxury car, it never seems to matter. And according to the J.D. Power Associates 2005 Vehicle Dependability Study, which focused on three-year-old vehicles, GM and Ford finished first in most areas. It turns out Ford and GM captured record high awards with Chevrolet earning the coveted top spot in no less than seven segments.
But foreign car defenders cannot be counted on to wake up and face reality anytime soon. They tend to store canned, decades-old quotes in their heads and spit them out at a moments notice like a cassette player (or maybe an eight-track player since it appears to be one continuous loop.)
I say this because the first reader comment to Mr. Bilek's column resorts to meaningless and derogatory jokes we have all heard before, like the one about each letter in FORD standing for "fix-or-repair-daily" claiming they "break down every 15 miles." Is this all foreign car lovers have got before the truth is known far and wide? Is their strategy now funniness over facts? I wonder if the reader ever heard the one about NISSAN standing for "neatly-installed-steel-sheetmetal-around-nothing" or TOYOTA standing for "two-old-Yamahas-on-thin-aluminum?"
But seriously, it would be a disservice to not reveal Mr. Bilek's answer to the most popular question asked of him, which is, "What's the best car you've ever driven?" His answer was the Ford Five Hundred.
The Consumer Guide Automotive article also points out what many pro-American enthusiasts have believed for years. Car critics hold American cars to a higher standard and over-scrutinize their details. Then, when flaws inevitably appear as they always will in foreign and domestics alike, it is the domestic that gets the "poor quality" label.
Case in point is the recent comparison of the Ford Freestar to the Honda Odyssey by the very outfit for which Mr. Bilek works. The Ford Freestar and the Mercury Monterey are criticized by claims that their "cabins abound with budget-grade plastic" while ignoring that the only places you'll find padding in the Odyssey are the seats, carpet, and headliner. Mr. Bilek claims that the Freestar has no less plastic and even has a padded dashboard and door panels, which the Odyssey does not. The Ford also has more soft-touch surfaces. But it is the Odyssey that gets the "top notch" label for assembly.
Even when foreign and American cars have similar problems, foreign automakers often get a free pass, catering to the misleading but popular belief that foreign cars are superior by default. When GM's V6 had intake manifold problems and Honda's V6 had transmission problems, the media crucified GM and hardly mentioned Honda. Personally, I'll take an intake manifold defect over a transmission problem any day.
We as Americans should be careful in supporting foreign firms whose primary loyalties are likely to lie outside the U.S. Ford, for instance, is scrambling to replace current, longtime suppliers (which are affiliated with Honda and Toyota of Japan) with domestic suppliers. It seems Ford wants to increase threefold its hybrid SUV lineup over the next three years, but Aisin-Seiko Co. Ltd., in which Toyota has a minority shareholder stake, will only increase transmission output by 20 percent. If you are of the opinion that Toyota is the leader in hybrid technology, situations like this may reveal why American companies aren't even if they want to be.
But little-known information may show that giving Japanese automakers the leadership nameplate in hybrid technology could be misleading. Few people realize that General Motors has delivered hundreds of hybrid public transportation buses to 23 cities across the U.S. since 2003, which offer fuel economy improvements of up to 55 percent over conventional buses. If you still consider Toyota the hybrid leader, consider a statement made by the company regarding their Prius automobile. In describing how the Toyota Prius can offer a 40 percent improvement in fuel economy, they are quick to mention it is about the same improvement found in General Motors hybrid buses. Now which vehicle has the potential to save more on fuel? A gas-guzzling, mass-transit bus or an already reasonably fuel-efficient compact car? But, of course, the everyday consumer is more familiar with the everyday car than a municipal bus. Hence, it's easier to declare Toyota the visible hybrid leader by the media.
Americans should applaud Ford for turning to American suppliers to maintain its independence. Ford is employing other American partners for its Fusion and Milan hybrids for 2008 by switching from Japanese-owned Sanyo to American-owned (and financially struggling) Delphi Corp., for battery orders.
Of course, it's easier for American consumers to switch from foreign "suppliers" to reclaim their self-sufficiency and independence than it is for a large American corporation like Ford, but the blue-oval guys are doing it. The more we can all switch to domestic "suppliers" of our own, from basic household goods to big-ticket items like automobiles, the more production, expertise, and innovation capacity will remain within our borders, and the more we can retain control over our own destiny as producers, a country, an economy, and a united people.