Honda via AP file
The best-selling car in America last year, the Honda Accord was rated by Consumer Reports as the best family sedan -- a tie with the Volkswagen AG Passat.
updated 3/8/2004 7:08:55 PM ET 2004-03-09T00:08:55

Detroit automakers have edged out European competitors in the overall quality of new vehicles they produce, but the average Big Three model still has 50 percent more serious problems than Asian cars and trucks, Consumer Reports magazine said Monday.

Illustrating the turn for the better, Ford Motor Co.’s Ford Focus, scoffed at for years due to repeated recalls, has improved to such an extent that it was the only car to win Consumer Reports top pick in two of 10 categories.

The magazine, which is consulted by an estimated 30 to 40 percent of U.S. car buyers, said the annual results were the best for Detroit automakers, struggling to hold market share against their foreign counterparts, in about 25 years.

“The Big Three have seen that the Japanese have been eating away at their market share. And they really needed to do something,” David Champion, senior director of the Consumer Reports auto test department, told Reuters. “What people are buying is they’re buying reliability with a Japanese car.”

Among vehicles less than one year old, Asian cars and trucks had an average of 12 problems per 100 vehicles, followed by the U.S. automakers with 18 problems per 100, and the European models with 20 problems per 100.

The Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler AG led the U.S. automakers with 16 problems per 100, followed by Ford at 18 and General Motors Corp. at 19.

The results, published in the April edition, are based on 675,000 responses from Consumer Reports readers. Owners told the magazine about serious problems they experienced with their vehicles over the preceding 12 months.

Consumers cited electrical systems and power equipment as among the most common serious setbacks with their cars.

The Focus small car had been recalled at least 11 times, but after much work by Ford to improve the car, it’s now the top-quality vehicle at Ford, Consumer Reports said.

“If you go buy a new Focus now, it should be reliable,” Champion said. “They really set to bed to really get their cars reliable.”

Among 10 “top pick” categories of all-around high performers, Consumer Reports selected the Focus as the top small sedan. The high performance version of the car, the Ford SVT Focus, was selected as the most “fun to drive”.

But the U.S. automakers still have far to go to catch the Japanese automakers. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. took top honors in the other eight of the 10 “top pick” categories, including a tie between the Honda Accord and the Volkswagen AG Passat for best family sedan. Of the 32 most reliable vehicles, 31 were from Japanese manufacturers, Consumer Reports said.

It said Detroit vehicles hold up better over time than models from European automakers, but both lag the Asian makes.

For three-year old models, the Asian automakers had an average of 54 problems per 100 vehicles, versus 60 per 100 for the U.S. automakers and 67 per 100 for the Europeans.

European automakers also trailed in receiving Consumer Reports’ “recommended” ratings, based on extensive testing at a 327-acre facility in Connecticut.

European brands won only eight of 82 “recommended” ratings, including three for Ford’s Volvo brand, and two for GM’s Saab brand.

Toyota had the most vehicles with “recommended” ratings with 21 of 22 vehicles tested winning the honors, followed by Honda with 11 of 12 tested vehicles. GM had 10 “recommended” ratings out of 27 tested models, followed by Ford with 8 out of 15 vehicles and Nissan with 8 of 13 models.

Japanese models also surpassed rivals when when owners were asked if they were satisfied with their vehicles. Japanese automakers filled 21 of the 33 slots on the magazine’s “most satisfying” list. The hybrid Toyota Prius, powered by electric batteries and a gas engine, tied with Toyota’s Lexus LS430 luxury sedan as the most satisfying vehicle.

Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union, a nonprofit organization that does not take advertising or sponsorships and which buys the vehicles it tests anonymously. Last year the group spend about $1.9 million on test vehicles. 

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