Detroit Free Press 02/27/2009
Author: Justin Hyde
(c) Copyright 2009, Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON — Foreign brands maintained their domination over Detroit models in the annual evaluations by Consumer Reports, which praised Ford Motor Co. for quality but offered sharp critiques of General Motors Corp. and warned that Chrysler LLC was trailing the industry.
While the rankings may seem less essential in the midst of the worst market for new vehicles in four decades, the results offer a snapshot of a hyper-competitive market offering no reprieve for Detroit’s struggling automakers.
The closely watched analysis lauded Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Co. and Subaru Motor Co. vehicles as the best in the industry. Its “top picks” list changed little from last year, with the Toyota Highlander displacing the Hyundai Santa Fe as best midsize SUV and the Chevrolet Avalanche replacing the Chevrolet Silverado as best pickup. The Chevy was the only Detroit model among the 10 picks, five of which were Toyotas. Overall, Ford had the best ratings among Detroit companies, with the magazine granting “recommended” grades to 70% of Ford’s lineup, compared with 17% of GM’s models it tests.
David Champion, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, said Ford’s quality on many new models matched or exceed that of Honda and Toyota, while GM was building eye-catching new models. He cited Ford for boring design and GM for inconsistent quality. “I hate to say, but if you could merge the two, with the strength of both, you would have a good product line to really compete against the Japanese,” Champion told the Washington Auto Press Association.
As for Chrysler, the news was bleak. The magazine does not recommend a single Chrysler vehicle in its annual automotive issue, and ranks it last among all automakers because of below-average reliability and poor scores on its driving tests. Champion said the new Dodge Ram pickup was the lone model that stacked up well versus the competition. “Chrysler has a long way to go,” he said.
Automakers closely watch the magazine’s annual auto issue, whose recommendations carry more sway than any other independent source, thanks to more than 7 million print and Internet subscribers. Chrysler used the magazine’s quality rankings as a benchmark in its request to the Obama administration for a $5- billion survival loan.
To earn a top pick in a category, the vehicles have to do well in driving tests, have at least average reliability according to owner surveys and garner good crash-test scores. The magazine also requires top picks to offer electronic-stability control either as standard equipment or as a readily available option. Detroit auto executives have long complained that Consumer Reports’ judgments lag the improvements in their vehicles, but the performance gap between Detroit and foreign makes has closed little in recent years.
Ford spokesman Bill Collins said the magazine’s tests were a “critical benchmark.” “The goal now is to distance ourselves from our top competitors and become the sole quality leader,” he said. Doug Betts, Chrysler’s vice president and chief customer officer, said the company was pleased by the magazine’s acknowledgement of the Ram, and vowed that its vehicles would do better in the future. “It will take time to see the results of the changes that we are putting in place to address the reliability and quality concerns of our customers,” he said in a statement. GM spokeswoman Janine Fruehan said the company “had its arms around” the problems cited by Consumer Reports. “Our internal data suggest that we’re going to be much better, and far more reliable, and we expect that will be seen in the vehicles to come,” she said.