Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
New Toyotas fresh off the boat in Long Beach, Calif., await shipping to their final destination.
By Anne Thompson Chief environmental correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/29/2005 6:59:59 PM ET 2005-03-29T23:59:59

Detroit's cars of the future generate plenty of excitement. The problem is with the present —and the attitudes of buyers like Robin Rene.

"I'd like to support strictly [the] U.S. economy overall," she says while shopping for a car in Denver. "But, you know, I also need a reliable and dependable car."

So, as she has for the last 20 years, Rene will get a Japanese vehicle.

Two decades ago, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had 76 percent of the market. Today, it's below 60 percent and falling.

U.S. automakers are still haunted by an image that Micheline Maynard, author of "The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market," says they can't shake.

"It isn't that the quality coming out of the factory is so bad," says Maynard. "But as you get to about three years of ownership, which is when the warranty expires, people tend to have more problems with Detroit vehicles than Japanese vehicles."

Yet Detroit's reliability is getting better. U.S. manufacturers are still in second place according to Consumer Reports, but they are inching closer to their Asian rivals.

But the U.S. industry has huge expenses — health care packages for workers cost the Big Three anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 per vehicle, compared to less than $400 for the Japanese.

And then there are incentives. To move its vehicles, Detroit offered an average of more than $3,100 in February, nearly three times as much as Japan. It's a trend that GM — with its falling sales and profits — says it must reverse.

"One of the things is you introduce good new cars that command better margins, don't require as much in the way of incentives to move them," says GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.

Even Oprah Winfrey isn't enough. The Pontiac G6s she gave her audience last fall today have incentives that take 20 percent off the sticker price, far more than the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. 

Having dominated passenger cars and made inroads with SUVs, Japan now has its sights on Detroit's last big profit center — pickup trucks.

Toyota cenior vice president Don Esmond says the formula won't change.

"At the end of the day, it's who does the best job of listening to the customer" who is going to be the winner in the high stakes race to capture the loyalty and confidence of America's drivers.

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