Detroit Shifts Gears Against Japanese

Scions seen
Scion cars from Toyota are stacked in a display, 07 January 2007, at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan.

Richard and Michelle Conetta are shopping for a new car, but they've already made their decision: the chose a Toyota based on its reputation for reliability and safety — barely considering American brands. Richard believes Japanese cars don't break down.

"I think they won over the public in that respect compared to the American car," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Anthony Mason.

For American automakers that attitude has become an image crisis. A recent survey by the Detroit News found that 70 percent of buyers who avoided American cars said the main reason was concerns about quality and reliability.

David Champion, head of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, said the stereotypes about Japanese and American cars are not far from the truth. He takes reporters on white knuckle rides that compare the cars' maneuverability. He first compared the emergency handling of a Chevrolet Equinox against a Honda CRV swerving to avoid an accident. On the rain slicked road, he gave Honda the higher marks.

"That was about 5 miles an hour faster and a lot easier to drive," Champion said.

He conducted a brake test by driving the cars at 60 miles per hour and hitting the breaks at the same time. The Honda CRV scored better than the Saturn VUE.

"We've found that the domestic manufacturers tend to have longer breaking distances than their Japanese competitors," Champion said. "And really when you're looking at safety, breaking is really one of the major aspects of it."

Even looking inside the vehicles, like this Jeep, Champion finds American brands, for all of their improvements, still don't measure up.

"The whole interior is just really sort of cheap and nasty. And you know, one of the engineers said it's a bit like sitting inside an igloo cooler."

At the annual auto show last week Detroit rolled out its new lineup. But all the highly polished chrome couldn't hide the fact that Motown had another horrible year. Ford's sales were down nearly 8 percent; GM's were off even more, and both companies lost billions.

While Toyota was headed in the other direction — its sales soaring nearly 13 percent in the U.S. for the 5th straight year — its Camry was the best selling car here, while its Lexus was the best selling luxury brand for the seventh year in a row. And this year Toyota could become king of the road. If it hits its target of selling nearly 9-and-a-half million vehicles it will overtake General Motors to become the world's largest automaker, a title which GM has held for more than 75 years.

Toyota made its success right here on the assembly line. That has allowed Toyota to identify problems and correct mistakes more quickly. But Norm Bafunno, a vice president of Toyota who is in charge of this plant in Princeton, Ind., insists there won't be any celebration if Toyota becomes number one.

"There won't be any kind of fireworks display at all the plants or at the sales headquarters in California, or at our design studios in Michigan, it won't happen," he said. "That's not our goal. That's not the culture."

Steve Spear, an M.I.T. engineering lecturer who used to work on the assembly line to study the Toyota system, said that a culture of paranoia persists at the company.

"They constantly worry about who's gonna catch up. And if they can't figure out about whom to worry, they worry that they can't worry," he said.

And U.S. automakers are catching up. Toyota has been plagued by a series of recalls in recent years. In quality rankings, American cars are narrowing the gap. J.D. Powers polls buyers about problems with their vehicles during the first 3 years of ownership. In 2003, U.S. automakers trailed the Japanese by 17 percent. By last year, the gap had closed to just 13 percent, in part because Detroit's had a change in attitude.