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Why Detroit needs to build better cars

So how can Detroit build better cars — cars that Americans crave? First, say analysts, U.S. car makers have to improve quality. Period.  By CNBC's Phil LeBeau
/ Source: CNBC

From the moment a new car is drawn up — through mock-ups, test drives, auto show rollouts, and ultimately off the assembly line — it takes three to four years for a new model to reach showrooms. With that much time, shouldn't the Big Three crank out more winners?

Sure, Detroit hits the occasional home run, like Chrysler's 300C, Ford's Mustang, and General Motors’ Cadillac CTS.

But there are plenty of whiffs, too. Take the new Ford 500 sedan, heir to the Taurus. In its first model year, 2005, Ford sold just 107,000 of the 500's, compared with 263,000 Tauruses when that model debuted in 1986.

Or consider the Buick Rendezvous: GM sold just 60,000 of those SUVs last year, well behind the 103,000 Toyota 4Runners sold last year.

So it’s no wonder the Big Three's share of U.S. auto sales has dropped from 71 percent in 1996 to 55 percent today.

So how can Detroit build better cars — cars that Americans crave? First, say analysts, U.S. car makers have to improve quality. Period.

U.S. makes just don't hold up. Consumer Reports, which lists Mercury as the only U.S. brand in the Top Ten for quality, says a three-year-old domestic vehicle typically has as many problems as an eight-year-old Asian model. The magazine's David Champion thinks he knows why.

"There’s a lot of engineering and time put on new products,” he said. “But once that product is launched, they don't seem to be as diligent at fixing the current car as they rolling out a new one with new features.”

Fruitless tinkering
Auto consultant John Casesa says the quality issues start even earlier.

"The most successful auto makers are known for sticking to their plans once they agree on the product concept."

He says U.S. manufacturers are prone to costly, ultimately fruitless tinkering.

"The changes have to be made before you freeze the design, not after," he said.

Second, to build a better car, Detroit must beat its rivals at rolling out innovative designs, features and technology. Example: Chrylser's breakthrough Stow ‘n Go seats in minivans. But with other products, Asian automakers spend more for an advantage, according to Jim Hossack, an analyst with industry forecaster AutoPacific.

"It's really not a problem for Toyota — which has more money than the other automakers combined — to spend $1 billion seeing if hybrids work.  If they do, great. If not, so what. GM can't afford to do that, neither can Ford."

Legitimate excuse or not, Detroit must simply — or not so simply — build cars and trucks that are more appealing, more feature-packed, more useful and more exciting.

Products like the new Pontiac Solstice, and Ford Edge — eye-catchers in the vein of Chrysler's boldly styled Charger, a turnaround car for Dodge.

Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles says the key to building these winners goes beyond taking risks. It also means making good-value cars and trucks that connect with buyers.

"They shouldn't be annoyed with their vehicle,” he said. “They should enjoy it, look forward to it. And that helps sell the next one.  People say, 'Well, I had a great time in this or that vehicle — I want another one.' Sometimes it takes just that one special feature.”

That’s easy to say. But hard to do