TOKYO -- Here's the least-publicized news in Japan's automobile industry: Executives of the Japanese companies that have torn up the U.S. auto market think the Detroit-based "Big Three" are turning out some excellent cars these days.
"The sense at the top of the Japanese companies is that Detroit is basically solving the manufacturing and quality-control problems that opened the door so wide for Japanese carmakers," said the former head of a Japanese automaker's U.S. operations. His retirement job keeps him in close touch with industry trends here and in the United States.
The bad news, he added, is that manufacturing and quality control never were the whole problem.
The struggling Big Three "still have a long way to go to be competitive, not only in export markets but most especially in the U.S. home market," he said.
Japanese executives, including the retiree, declined to speak on the record about the quality of today's American cars. And you never would have guessed their opinion from what they said publicly during President George Bush's auto-oriented state visit two weeks ago.
"The typical Japanese consumer thinks an American car needs to be repaired every week, has to stop at the gas pump every three or four miles and is too wide and too long for Japan's narrow streets," Ken-ichiro Ueno, president of the Japan Automobile Dealers Association, said the day Mr. Bush arrived.
But when assured of anonymity, executives of some Japanese carmakers revealed a different perception of the cars made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
What they said was that most U.S.-made cars either have caught up or soon will catch up in terms of durability, frequency of repair and basic construction.
"I test-drive American cars whenever I'm in the States," one executive said. "Besides the obvious winners like the Ford Taurus, most American cars now come from the factory in good shape and have far fewer new-car problems once they're sold. You can see the difference as their frequency-of-repair records catch up, too."
So why can't American cars compete? Japanese cars accounted for 30 percent of the U.S. car market last year.
Most of the American and foreign car executives here during the Bush visit agreed that if Japan's 12-year-old "voluntary export restraints" were lifted, imports from Japan would promptly leap to 40 percent of the market and might soon reach 50 percent.
Here are some key problems that came out in talks with Japanese automakers during and after the Bush trip:
* Weak innovation. "For the American makers, innovation means a new class of vehicle -- vans, fancy pickups and four-wheel-drive off-roads, for example," one marketing director said. "They do that very well, but those are a distraction from the bread-and-butter family car, which still dominates the market and will for a long time."
* No follow-on or successor models. Japanese carmakers have their designers and engineers constantly at work on look-alike models both bigger and smaller than their main entries.
"When we have a winner, we can use it to introduce similar-looking cars right away," the retired executive said. "And where is the Taurus's successor? It's now six years since the Taurus went into production."
jTC * Fat throughout system. "American companies pay out too much in dividends and bonuses, get far too many engineers and designers into the act, have so many redundant middle managers. They get in each other's way, and yet they have no systematic way to listen to their workers," the marketing director said.
* Neglect of export markets. "The U.S. market is so vast that the American makers still can't get used to exporting as a bottom-line proposition," the retired executive said.
Most Japanese executives said they saw no reason to hope that the Bush visit's package of "voluntary" import acceleration in Japan would have much impact on the $41 billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan.
Auto show hours
The International Auto Show opens today at the Baltimore Convention Center and adjacent Festival Hall. The show, which runs through Sunday, Jan. 26, is open noon to 10 p.m. on Saturdays,noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays. Price of admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under.