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Ford's Quality Improvements Pay Off -- and So Does Its Plucky Image

Ford's (F) strong placement as the "most improved" automaker in the Consumer Reports annual auto survey is an affirmation that domestic automakers can break through the Asian stranglehold on quality. But it's also evidence that consumers rate cars subjectively, and that Ford is getting the benefit of the doubt from owners who like where the brand is going -- not to mention the fact that it didn't need a bailout.

"The company actually means it now when it uses the old 'Quality is Job One' slogan," auto analyst James Bell, president of the Motor Press Guild, told me. "But a lot of owners are just glad to have a domestic brand they can identify with, that didn't take government money."

It's the car's fault
Theoretically consumers should be able to rate their cars objectively -- they either performed reliably or they didn't. But in fact emotional reactions play a big role. Bell points out that BMW has taken a hit in quality surveys from older drivers who simply can't relate to the automakers' complex iDrive system and its other advanced telematics. It becomes, in effect, the car's fault.

Ford placed fifth overall in the rankings that will appear in the annual April auto issue (which debuted Monday), up from 11th last year. Ten of the 15 Ford vehicles CR tested were recommended, and the Mustang won the top spot in the sporty car category.

In fifth place... with a bullet
The ratings wouldn't be soaring if the quality wasn't actually there. CR's David Champion said that Ford is now "getting close to Toyota" in reliability. Toyota remains a gold standard, but it's taken a hit from the consumer jury because of its sudden acceleration problems and recalls. And it's getting demerits for some fit and finish slippage.

Toyota is still in third place at CR, below Honda and Subaru, but a worrying sign is that its hybrid Prius fell off CR's "most satisfying" model list this year (after being the top car for five years in a row). GM was further down in 12th place, and Chrysler an ignominious last. The domestics still have a lot of ground to cover.

GM is clawing back from really negative bankruptcy-related consumer perceptions with innovative cars like the Chevy Volt (which takes a hit in the CR auto issue for cold weather performance). But GM is still fielding a car fleet with such outmoded models as the Impala, and that hurts. Chrysler has new products in the pipeline, but it's older models have big quality challenges. A turnaround is still ahead.

Ford's spin is that it's all in the numbers, not consumer high fives. "It boils down to the data," said Kristen Kinley, Ford's quality communications manager. "You can't interpret it in ways that are not positive to Ford. In the last three to five years, we've seen our rankings go up consistently. Craftsmanship, quality of materials, fit and finish, and on-board technology -- that's what makes the ownership experience all the better."

Survey satisfaction
But those rankings heavily weigh subjective consumer satisfaction. And Ford has the edge. In the AutoPacific's 2010 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards, the Taurus, F-150, Edge, Escape and Expedition were all tops in their respective categories. And J.D. Power's 2010 Initial Quality Survey, which tracks problems in new cars, ranked Ford fifth-best and the top domestic brand. David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research, said last year's survey may have marked "a key turning point" in domestic automakers' fight to get recognized for improved quality.

Further, the auto shopping site said Tuesday that Ford is its most-researched brand online, topping Toyota, Chevrolet, BMW, Mercedes and Honda (in that order).

They're the top
Ford's top-ranked cars in the CR survey were:

  • Mustang GT
  • Taurus SHO
  • Lincoln MKT
  • Fusion/Milan Hybrids
The Fusion/Milan twins were the highest-ranked hybrids in this year's survey, up from number two last year. Ford is really making a push with green cars, including the forthcoming Focus electric and C-Max-based Energi plug-in hybrid. But those are for future surveys.


Photo: Flickr/My Old Postcards
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