Detroit's Big Three Make Gains

The new ratings drive conventional car wisdom right off the road.

As CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports, when asked to name his top pick for reliability between Mercedes, Jaguar, Ford Focus or BMW, Consumer Reports' auto testing chief David Champion chose the Focus.

In fact, Champion says for the first time in more than 20 years, cars from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors are more dependable than those built by Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and BMW.

A Consumer Reports' survey of 675,000 car owners shows new American models have fewer problems and spend less time in repair shops than their higher-priced European competitors.

The modest Ford Focus, for example, has only half as many maintenance breakdowns as the BMW 7 Series: a top of the line luxury car which costs four times as much.

Of the $82,000 BMW 7 Series, Champion calls it, "one of our worst picks."

"It didn't test well and reliability has been atrocious," says Champion.

The $19,000 Focus, on the other hand, ranks atop Consumer Reports' charts.

"It's a wonderful car to drive, an absolute blast," says Champion.

U.S. carmakers, though, still trail Japanese manufacturers by a wide margin when it comes to reliability. On average, a 7-year-old Lexus or Honda has about the same number of problems as a 3-year-old car from Detroit.

Japanese models, including the Acura TL, Toyota Sienna and Subaru Forester swept eight of the top ten spots for quality.

Attention to precise details and more reliable electronics have the Asian models ahead of the pack.

But, Champion says, American manufacturers continue to close the dependability gap.

"The Big Three has made tremendous progress," says Champion. "They have really put a special effort on reliability."

So, while it's not yet the overall champion, Detroit is no longer driving in the slow lane when it comes to quality.

Click here to get more information about five of Consumer Reports' top 10 picks of 2004, as featured on The Early Show.