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COLUMN ONE : Why Can't America Catch Up? : Despite a decade of effort by U.S. firms, the Japanese are still building better cars. Now, new thinking in Tokyo threatens to make the gap even wider.

THE QUALITY GAP: Why Japanese auto makers are still winning. First in a series.


TOKYO — As the worldwide auto industry enters the 1990s, the Japanese are still in command, still holding with a vise-like grip to the competitive edge over Detroit's auto makers that they first asserted more than a decade ago.

Despite a 10-year, multibillion-dollar effort by the American auto industry to catch up with Japan in terms of reliability and overall quality, the Japanese are still building better cars.

Today, Japanese cars are still not only more trouble-free but also tend to be more stylish and appealing than those offered by the domestic industry.

"Without a doubt, the Japanese won the 1980s," said Chris Cedergren, an automotive analyst with J. D. Power & Associates, a research firm in Agoura Hills, Calif., that publishes studies that are considered, both here and in Detroit, to be the last word on automotive quality. "The Japanese are winning the war."

Even Detroit executives--who usually like to publicize only their own quality gains--quietly admit that they have failed to catch Japan during their decade-long race.

"We keep track of who is first in quality, and it bounces back and forth between Toyota and Honda, mostly," conceded Dan Rivard, Ford's executive director for process and product quality improvement. "They are still a little further ahead of us, and so we have to move faster than we did in the 1980s to catch them."

This winter, Detroit is paying an awful price for its failure to close the quality gap in the 1980s. A free-fall plunge in car sales has forced General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to lay off tens of thousands of workers during the last few months. A staggering 42 of 62 Big Three assembly plants are being shuttered at least temporarily during January.

The Big Three are girding for their worst slump since the recession of the early 1980s--at a time when Japanese plants are continuing to run at full tilt. Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca said recently that 1990 could be Detroit's "toughest year in a decade."

To be sure, the Big Three auto makers have dramatically improved the quality of their cars over the last 10 years, a trend that has, at the very least, kept America in the ballgame. Ford's internal surveys, for instance, show that the company posted a 60% quality improvement between 1980 and 1989.

Since 1985, when J. D. Power began its surveys of initial automotive quality--in which it asks people who have recently bought new cars to rate their driving experiences--the number of defects reported by domestic car owners has declined by nearly 40%, including an 8% drop in the last year alone. One domestic car--the Buick LeSabre--was even ranked by Power as the No. 2 trouble-free car sold in America in 1989, trailing only the Nissan Maxima.

Indeed, Detroit has produced its share of winning products over the last decade, cars that were not only well-built but that consumers found compelling as well. Ford's Taurus helped redefine automotive styling, while Chrysler's mini-van single-handedly created a whole new market.

Japanese government and industry officials, who were stunned by the shoddiness of American workmanship in the late 1970s, are now equally impressed by the speed with which the domestic industry has turned its quality around.

Some even say--perhaps in an effort to be diplomatic--that they believe Detroit is starting to catch up.

"My personal opinion is that the quality of American cars has increased, and that the quality gap between the U.S. and Japan has absolutely narrowed," said Hajime Ito, deputy director of the automobile division of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the government agency that sets industrial policy for Japan.

"I don't think Japanese cars will ever come to dominate the American market completely, because American cars are getting better and better," Ito said in an interview.

"I've seen dramatic improvements in the Big Three, especially at Ford, which has drastically changed itself," said Shoichiro Irimajiri, Honda's senior managing director in charge of worldwide manufacturing and one of the most respected engineers in Japan.

But many outside analysts believe that the Japanese are, in fact, widening their quality lead once more, after several years in which Detroit did narrow the gap. Although the Japanese government has recently complained to Japan's auto makers that they are letting quality slip in an effort to keep up with the worldwide demand for their products, independent quality surveys show that Japanese cars are actually better than ever.

J. D. Power's surveys--perhaps the only quality measurements used internally by every major auto company in Japan and the United States--have found that while the domestics reduced their defects by 8% in 1989, the Japanese cut theirs by 17% to an all-time low, effectively opening up a wider quality gap over Detroit. In 1988, measured by defects per 100 cars, the Japanese had an 18% quality advantage over the domestic industry; in 1989 the gap was 27%, according to J. D. Power.

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