After Years in Doghouse, Are American Cars Finally Back on Top?

For the first time in 24 years, the Big 3 top overseas carmakers in a quality survey

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It seemed not too long ago that any vehicle connected even remotely to Detroit was down and out. For decades, U.S. cars were viewed as clunkier, less reliable, and less inspired than their overseas competitors. Yet in a seemingly surprising reversal, the latest edition of the respected J.D. Power Initial Quality Study shows the Big 3--yes, including Chrysler--at the top of the heap for the first time in 24 years.

Given that Toyota--long the industry-leader--is in the grips of a devastating recall, the results might say less about Americans' improvement than decline among the overall pack. What seems clear to most, however, is Ford's rapid rise. Here's what else analysts are saying.

  • Now to Translate That Into Sales...  Shawn Langlois of Marketwatch homes in on the real challenge facing GM, Ford, and Chrysler: using these gains to persuade buyers who prefer imports. "That likely won't happen as a result of just one or two surveys, but each step helps the Detroit car makers as they work to dispel the notion that the Japanese, in particular, rule the roost in terms of quality," he writes. 
  • Toyota's Remarkable Collapse  In Neal E. Boudette's brief write-up, he puts the focus on arguably the biggest story: Toyota's precipitous fall. "The Japanese company's Toyota brand has been a perennial leader in the J.D. Power & Associates annual Initial Quality Survey. But in the 2010 study, Toyota was rated below average, falling to 21st place from seventh the year before, and trailed several U.S. nameplates it has traditionally bested, including Ford, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Lincoln." He spends the least time on Chrysler's rise, noting dryly at the conclusion that while the Ram was close to average, "the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands were all well below."
  • Ford the Real U.S. Winner Here  Tom Blumer of conservative site Newsbusters tries to pour cold water on the results. Blumer examines them to show that GM's ratings have in fact slipped, while Chrysler's are still below average. He makes sure to tie this to the fact of their bailouts: "The reality is that the two auto-industry bailout projects of the Obama administration and the UAW are badly lagging in a critically important objective measurement metric. ... The one U.S.-headquartered entity that hasn't been bailed out is getting it right at an unprecedented level."
  • Measure of Brand Perception, Not Necessarily Quality  John Rosevear of Motley Fool explains what distinguishes J.D. Power surveys from other rankings, such as Consumer Reports'. "It's very different from something like Consumer Reports ratings, which look at durability -- how a vehicle holds together over several years. By focusing on the first 90 days, the IQS is more likely to capture problems related to the car's assembly, rather than to its design. ... the IQS is more about buyer perceptions and short-term customer satisfaction than it is about the vehicles themselves." While the Power results matter, Rosevear recommends car buyers concerned with getting a reliable car stick to Consumer Reports.
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