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Fact check: Are American cars really that bad?

Take a good look at vehicle reliability data and the answer may surprise you.

February 3, 2006; Posted: 12:21 p.m. EST (1721 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - With all the bad news coming out of Detroit these days, many have a disarmingly simple suggestion: Ford and General Motors should simply build better cars.

"I read that Ford plans to cut about 30 000 jobs in North America alone," one CNNMoney.com reader wrote. "How about building better cars instead?'

How about that?

A perception of poor quality certainly isn't the only reason Ford and GM cars can have trouble in today's market. But it's a factor.

We looked at J.D. Power and Associates Long-term Dependability Surveys to get a sense of where American cars rank in terms of reliability and how much they've improved. That survey measures the number of problems vehicle owners have after 3 years of ownership.

We also checked with Consumer Reports to see what they thought about GM and Ford's performance in terms of reliability.

The answer is that, overall, GM and Ford cars are not that bad. In fact, depending on which survey you believe, they may even have become pretty good.

The problem is that "pretty good" has become "not quite good enough" in a world where quality standards have been raised so high and which many consumers still have bad memories of General Motors and Ford cars that have failed them in the past.

Reliability by the numbers

If you believe J.D. Power's surveys, the story for American luxury brands -- Lincoln, Cadillac and Buick -- is particularly striking.

Of those three brands Lincoln performed best in the 2005 survey, ranking third of all brands -- behind Lexus, as always, and Porsche -- with a score of 151. Buick was fourth overall with a score of 163, matching a score that earned Lexus a top ranking just two years earlier. Cadillac was fifth with 175 problems per 100 vehicles.

Nissan's luxury brand, Infiniti, ranked sixth on the survey while Honda's luxury brand, Acura, ranked 10th, lower than the American luxury brands.

In fact, Lincoln, Cadillac and Buick all out-scored Toyota's Toyota-branded and Honda's Honda-branded vehicles in the same 2005 J.D. Powers survey.

GM and Ford's non-luxury brands didn't do quite as well but the Ford brand and GM's Chevrolet came out above average.

See the table for the details but, as it turns out, a lot of Japanese brands -- everything from Mazda right down to Isuzu -- came off worse in the survey than the worst GM brand, Pontiac.

The nature of the problems reported has also changed markedly over the years, said John Tews, a spokesman for J.D. Power. Major problems, things that would actually make a vehicle not drivable, are rare today, he said. "Problem" now usually means a squeak, a rattle or a stuck knob or switch.

Another view

But the people at Consumer Reports don't have quite as good a view of Ford and GM products as J.D. Powers' survey.

In Consumer Reports predicted reliability ratings, brands like Toyota, Subaru and even Suzuki rank higher than Pontiac, which has average predicted reliablity in Consumer Reports' estimation.

Lincoln, the top-ranked American brand in the J.D. Power survey, is seen as having below average predicted reliability by Consumer Reports.

Still, agreed Michael Quincy, automotive content specialist for Consumer Reports, the quality of Ford and GM cars has improved greatly in recent years.

Looking at Ford in particular, that company's American-branded cars are about average in long term reliability. Again, though, today's "average" is a lot better than the "average" of years gone by.

"It's not like it was in the '70s when 'Ford' did stand for 'fix or repair daily,'" he said, recalling an old joke once commonly hurled against America's No. 2 carmaker.

Some Ford cars are actually "above average" in reliability, according to Consumer Reports own surveys, Quincy said. The Ford Escape Hybrid SUV is "better than average," for example, and the closely-related Mercury Mariner SUV is "much better than average" in reliability.

Still, some other Ford cars aren't so bullet-proof.

The Ford F-150 pick-up, the largest selling vehicle in America, has "below average" reliability according to Consumer Reports. And, Lincoln's performance on J.D. Power surveys notwithstanding, the Lincoln LS sedan and Navigator SUV are both rated as "much worse than average" in reliability by Consumer Reports according to its own surveys.

GM brands, according to Consumer Reports, have mostly average predicted reliability. Hummer and Saturn are seen as below average.

Why are we so sure they're bad?

Given J.D. Power survey results, and even the "not bad" showings in Consumer Reports data, why do Americans seem so sure that American cars are dross?

Three possible reasons:

Reputation: Toyota has, by now, had a lifetime to cement its reputation among American consumers for nearly fool-proof quality. GM (Research) and Ford (Research) spent nearly as long honing a reputation for not caring much about quality. Things may have improved, but it takes a long time for that to sink in.

Recalls: GM, in particular, has had a problem with headline-making recalls. It's a big company, it sells a lot of vehicles and they share a lot of components. When one of those parts goes wrong, eye-popping numbers of vehicles can be affected. That doesn't mean the vehicles are unreliable. Recalls are a different sort of problem. But it does cause concerns.

Reviews: GM and Ford vehicles haven't always exuded the quality that may have been hiding in there somewhere. Cheap-feeling interior materials, raspy-sounding engines and gap-filled construction didn't give potential buyers the feeling of confidence that even lesser Japanese brands manage to carry off.

Both GM and Ford are making strides in this area, too. Some recent GM and Ford products should go a long way to correcting the image of throwaway construction.

GM and Ford deserve credit for what they've done so far. But American consumers have shown they still need lots more proof.

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