For decades, Detroit's auto makers didn't take nuts-and-bolts quality issues seriously. And who can blame them? After all, in the post-World War II era, domestic automobiles ruled, and car buyers just accepted that things went wrong. One former GM exec recalls that in the early '60s, his dad used to keep a clipboard handy on the passenger seat so he could jot down everything that needed to get fixed on the next visit to the dealer. A tally of 20-plus glitches wasn't unusual, he says.
In the late '70s, Detroit began downsizing cars for better gas mileage as consumers started to realize that "Made in Japan" was no longer a stigma. But quality problems persisted. It was poor enough across the board that General Motors (GM) won a 1986 federal lawsuit and avoided a huge recall for faulty brakes on its so-called X-cars (GM's early effort at small front-wheel-drive vehicles) by demonstrating in court that, though the X-cars had lousy brakes, they weren't worse than those of its rivals.
By the early 1990s, superior cars from Japan and Europe made Americans realize they should expect more from their cars. "As a former owner of American-made automobiles, I thought a really good car was something of a fantasy, until I started driving a Toyota (TM)," wrote Jim Messina, a promotional consultant from Sinking Spring, Pa., in a 1997 letter to BusinessWeek.
DENTED REPUTATION. Detroit scrambled to adapt, but unfortunately for domestic carmakers, perception takes a long time to catch up to reality -- especially when past flaws have been so serious. "If a defect left you stranded on the side of the highway 20 years ago, you tend to remember that," says Jeremy Anwyl, president of Edmunds.com, an online auto service. He speaks from experience: A faulty 1980 GM engine did just that. His latest car also has a defect: a nontilting adjustable steering wheel, which he ranks as barely an inconvenience.
Domestic auto makers have been steadily improving quality for years, narrowing the gap with the best of the Japanese in both J.D. Power's initial quality rankings and Consumer Reports' long-term dependability surveys. However, building cars with fewer defects isn't translating into stronger sales, partly because some rivals are upgrading even faster but also because consumers have broadened their notion of what constitutes quality to include styling, comfort, and convenience factors (see BW, 12/8/03, "When Flawless Isn't Enough For Car Buyers").
So, what one driver sees as a minor defect, another could view as a deal-breaker. It all comes back to the basic lesson that quality is whatever the customer says it is.
Over the years, readers' complaints have traced the evolution of how Americans define car quality, from the "pray-it-won't-self-destruct" '70s through the aggravated '80s and into the current era, when cars are expected to be both defect-free and an expression of individual taste and style. Below are edited excerpts from letters that BusinessWeek readers have sent to our Detroit bureau over the years.
I learned to drive on a '71 Gremlin -- until the transmission fell out of it while my parents were crossing the trolley tracks.
-- Import owner, Washington, D.C.
My first car was a new Chrysler of the 1970s. It was an abomination.
-- Toyota owner, Pelham Manor, N.Y.
Don't believe Detroit's hype.... Just remember the Corvair, the Pinto, and the Oldsmobile diesel.
-- Ford pickup owner, Santa Rosa, Calif.
In 1982, our Chevy Citation lost its transaxle at 65,000 miles. The GM zone rep told me, "We're not going to help you. If we made it to last 100,000 miles, we'd have to charge more."
-- Ford Taurus owner, Ballston Lake, N.Y.
Driving -- or towing -- one of those trash cans into a dealership for repairs gets your blood boiling, especially since it always takes [so many] visits to solve a problem.
-- Owner of eight domestic cars, mid-70s through '80s
GM burned us on quality from '81 to '85 -- five new cars, all trash. A team of horses could not drag us into a GM dealership.
-- Mazda Miata owners, Los Gatos, Calif.
In the first year, the transmission went out, [stranding] my husband 850 miles from home. Later, the alternator exploded and the engine died, [followed three months later by] a fire beneath our car. When a person pays $57,000 for a new car, he should be able to drive it without problems.
-- Owner of 1990 GMC Sierra, Twin Falls, Idaho
The current vehicles are far superior to those from 1970 to 1990... but GM's management still doesn't get it. [They told me] I should accept and be satisfied with repeated failures of the same parts.
-- Owner of 1991 Pontiac Bonneville, Dallas
Chrysler makes automobiles that most would be happy to be seen in. [But] not only are they junk, Chrysler refuses to stand behind them. After four years [of owning a 1993 Eagle Vision Tsi], I've made it my life's mission to convince everyone I know not to purchase Chrysler products.
-- VW Passat owner, Belcamp, Md.
My minivan is an owner's nightmare. [Among other problems], it took two months and 10 phone calls [to get the seat-belt retractor fixed]. Ford could care less. They never apologize.
-- 1995 Ford Windstar owner, Glenview, Ill.
Cadillac's STS is enticing, but with whitewall tires, gaudy gold kits, and vinyl tops...one feels there is a time warp.
-- BMW owner, Seattle
My two-year-old car has spent more time in the shop this year than my wife's Nissan Sentra has in nine years total. Sayonara!
-- 1995 Chrysler Concorde owner, Newton, Mass.
At 3,500 miles, the paint started flaking off. This will most certainly be my last American vehicle. Period.
-- Mercury Mystique owner
A company can overcome quality differences by completely standing behind the products it sells.... Unfortunately, Ford's attitude toward defects is nonchalant.
-- Owner of several mid-'90s Fords, N. Kansas City, Mo.
In my garage, the Heartbeat of American has become the Heartbreak of America. It's a shame Detroit can't sweat the details.
-- Owner of 1997 Chevy Malibu, Ryebrook, N.Y.
The Dodge Neon Sport is a blast to drive and is very reliable, with good gas mileage. But it rattles, parts fall off, and it was poorly assembled from cheap materials.
-- BMW owner, Evansville, Ind.
We bought our [late '90s] Ford Escort for trouble-free, economical transportation...but its all-gray driver's compartment gives the feeling of sitting inside a fully instrumented egg carton.
-- Paradise, Calif., Ford owner By Katie Kerwin in Detroit