Motown can't crack listing of Top 10 cars

March 01, 2007|By Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON -- If there's an eternal optimist still floating around the offices of Detroit's automakers, it might be wise to keep him away from Consumer Reports' latest overview of the best and worst cars and trucks.

Sure, the bible of consumer reviews had some positive words in its annual auto issue released yesterday for Ford Motor Co.'s mid-size sedans, and it noted some improvement in the fit and finish on General Motors Corp.'s newest models. But, as occurred last year, no Detroit vehicle ranked in the magazine's 10 Top Picks, in which Toyota Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. had seven models.

Of the 54 models given a top recommendation, Detroit built eight. Of the 137 vehicles that were simply recommended, 38 came from an arm of GM, Ford or Chrysler.

Meanwhile, all of Honda's vehicles earned a recommendation, as did most Toyotas.

The magazine has not had an American car on its top picks list since April 2005, when it booted the Ford Focus for failing a crash test.

To win a top pick, a model has to stand out in Consumer Reports' testing, have at least average reliability and get adequate scores in crash tests.

"I still think Detroit is trailing," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' auto test center. "While there are some good models in the wings, it's like a cake recipe. You can look at the recipe and you can look at the picture on the box, and it looks really nice. It's only when you taste the cake when you can see if it's any good."

Part of the shortfall for Detroit comes from the magazine's deciding not to make top picks in two categories in which U.S. automakers usually do well - large sport utility vehicles and full-size pickups. Champion said the magazine avoided choosing best vehicles in those categories because it was testing several new models in both.

Champion and other Consumer Reports officials said that while the quality of vehicles from Detroit still lags those of Honda and Toyota, they were ahead of most European models and some Japanese brands. Toyota and Honda brands took the top five spots in predicted reliability based on owner surveys, with Mercury rising the highest among domestic brands to 10th. In last place: Mercedes-Benz, which had no recommended vehicles because of quality concerns. But it's not just quality that trips up Detroit automakers in Consumer Reports' view. This year, the magazine compiled a report card on each major automaker, compiling the average score of a company's vehicles on a battery of about 50 tests from handling to headlights. While most import automakers score an average of at least 70 on a 100-point scale,

Ford's vehicles average 64, while GM pulls a 57 and Chrysler a 51, the second-lowest.

Champion had some harsh words for the latest Chrysler models, citing the Jeep Compass and Dodge Caliber as "noisy, with very cheap interiors and uncomfortable seats." Rik Paul, automotive editor, noted that some automakers, such as Volkswagen, had good test scores but poor reliability measures.

As for Honda and Toyota, they "tend to build well-rounded vehicles that perform well ... and they do tend to rise to the top of our ratings," Paul said.

Bennie Fowler, vice president of global quality and advanced and manufacturing engineering at Ford, said he had not seen all the results yesterday afternoon, but he was proud that Consumer Reports continues to score Ford's newest products well, recommending new cars such as the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ.

While Fowler said Ford isn't satisfied with the results, he said, "we're feeling pretty good that we're making progress in the survey. We will get better."

GM spokeswoman Janine Fruehan said the automaker's number of warranty claims has been reduced 40 percent over the past five years, enabling GM to offer its extended warranty.

Chrysler Group spokesman Sam Locricchio said the company has made great strides in recent years in improving quality, but perception has lagged.

"We have seen improvements based on the new vehicles that have come out, particularly in the last five years. There has been some dramatic improvements, and we have seen that in the J.D. Power surveys," he said. "As some of our newer vehicles replace the older vehicles in the overall consumer fleet, I think those improvements are going to continue to be seen."

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