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Big 3 Bested in Quality Study

Autos: Japanese and German companies outpace U.S. rivals in a survey of consumers' ownership experience.


DETROIT — U.S.-based auto manufacturers were badly outpaced in a quality survey in which they should have fared better against their Japanese and German rivals, according to an industry consultancy planning to release its findings today.

Foreign-based auto makers won or tied for first in 14 of 17 categories in the annual Vehicle Experience Study conducted by San Diego-based Strategic Vision.

By contrast, Ford Motor Co. failed to score a single first place in the survey, and its Big Three rivals General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group topped or tied for first in only four vehicle categories.

The survey of 46,900 buyers of model year 2002 cars and trucks examined the quality of the total ownership experience beyond the presence or absence of reported problems, including such factors as the dealership experience and vehicle handling and performance.

"This study should be kinder to the domestics because it doesn't take into account exclusively reliability, where the domestics have never been able to match the Japanese," said Strategic Vision Vice President Dan Gorrell. "What's interesting, though, is the paucity of winners from Detroit, and Ford products aren't registering as winners of any segment."

The study, in its eighth year, surveyed owners who bought their new cars or trucks in October or November and had their vehicles at least three months. They were asked questions about 75 facets of their ownership.

Representatives of the major auto makers were unavailable for comment Sunday. Manufacturers tend to watch such surveys closely, however, whether to identify areas of improvement in future model years or to claim bragging rights in the hyper-competitive U.S. market.

Japanese companies dominated the Strategic Vision results, with Toyota Motor Corp.'s Toyota and Lexus brands winning or tying for first in six of the 17 vehicle categories, Honda Motor Co. taking three and Nissan Motor Co. one.

"Toyota is the big winner--again," Gorrell said. "They get it right in both fewer problems and overall product experience. And they are doing very well in trucks. Detroit, watch out."

Among major German manufacturers, Volkswagen won or tied for first in three categories and BMW won two.

General Motors and Chrysler Group each placed first in two categories.

GM's top finishers were the GMC Envoy, which tied for first place among mid-size sport utility vehicles with the Toyota 4Runner, and the Oldsmobile Aurora, which topped the field among larger cars.

For Chrysler Group, the Chrysler PT Cruiser came out on top among compact cars, and the Dodge Dakota won among compact pickup trucks.

With respect to actual problems reported in new vehicles--which can include imperfect paint jobs, wire connections breaking loose or complaints about wind noise or a radio not receiving a channel well--some of the category winners were not leaders in their segments.

For instance, the BMW X5, which came in at No. 1 among luxury SUVs, scored below average for problems, as did the GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Aurora and VW's Golf, Beetle and Passat.

But when taken as a whole, the quality of the ownership experience took those vehicles to the top of their categories, Gorrell said.

"Quality defined more broadly can encompass, for some vehicles, less-than-perfect performance," he said. "Reliability is important because it's the starting point, but you have to deliver more. The overall experience can overcome reported problems in a car."

Although no South Korean models took first place in their categories, Hyundai Motor Co. and its Kia subsidiary have rapidly improved their scores, which Strategic Vision refers to as the total quality index.

The Kia Sedona minivan, for instance, scored 845 of a possible 1,000 points on the index, beating out the Chrysler Town and Country, long a benchmark in that market segment, which scored 836.

"Hyundai continues to make big gains, with Kia sneaking up," Gorrell said.

"The Japanese and domestics are being squeezed by the Koreans, whose buyers are reporting experiences right at the top of the pack."


Quality Looms Large for Models Big, Small

Top finishers by category in Strategic Vision's 2002 Vehicle Experience Study:

Small car: Volkswagen Golf

Compact car: Chrysler PT Cruiser

Mid-size car: Nissan Maxima, VW Passat (tie)

Larger car: Oldsmobile Aurora

Small specialty coupe: VW New Beetle

Medium specialty coupe: Honda Accord

Near-luxury car: BMW 3-Series

Luxury car: Lexus LS 430

Convertible (priced less than $30,000): Toyota Camry Solara

Convertible (priced more than $30,000): Lexus SC 430

Minivan: Honda Odyssey

Small sport utility vehicle: Honda CR-V

Mid-size SUV: Toyota 4Runner, GMC Envoy


Full-size SUV: Toyota Sequoia

Luxury SUV: BMW X5

Compact pickup: Dodge Dakota

Full-size pickup: Toyota Tundra

Source: Strategic Vision

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