The Anti-Detroit Bias

Posted by: David Welch on June 12, 2007

The hecklers are out. Last week, I gave General Motors a well-deserves lashing for its lame response to the company’s own mediocre (and that’s being generous) performance in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. GM says the survey just doesn’t matter. Readers of the blog had two basic complaints: One, it’s the just import-loving media bashing poor ‘ole Detroit. And two, I didn’t mention Ford’s strong performance.

Actually, I wrote a separate item for this blog on Ford’s performance shortly after publishing the item about GM. I didn’t address the company’s improvements in the same piece because, the last time I checked, no one works for Big Three Motors. GM and Ford are two separate companies. If they were one giant auto company, gads would they have bloated overhead. But I checked, and they’re still separate companies. I think many people have a tendency to view the Big Three together.

Sometimes it’s appropriate. In this case it isn’t because they had very different results in Power’s quality study. If the conversation is about healthcare costs, or union negotiations, or struggling brands, maybe you write about them as a group because they have similar problems. But here, I wrote two pieces and did give Ford the credit it deserved.

Now to the first complaint. Look folks. I have favorite sports teams. I don’t have a favorite car company. I don’t drive a Japanese car, either. But when Honda and Toyota beat the domestic brands just about every year in these surveys—even if by a slim margin—you have to give credit where it’s due.

The U.S. carmakers have narrowed the gap considerably. It cannot be said that they make unreliable automobiles. But when you compare mass-market American brands like Ford and Chevrolet to Honda and Toyota, they rank lower. That’s true in J.D. Power’s long-term study, too. Cadillac and Buick did beat Toyota brand in the four-year Vehicle Dependability Study last year. But they still trailed Lexus. The big sellers like Ford and Chevy didn’t beat Toyota or Honda.

One more point. If every company’s quality is equal, which GM argues because the problems per 100 vehicles are close, then you’d think the winner every year would just about be generated at random. They’re all so close that the vagaries of a consumer survey would turn up Chevy one year, Honda the next, and so on. It doesn’t. So we must conclude that the Japanese brands which domestic loyalists love to hate—Honda and Toyota—are just a bit better. That’s not bias, it’s just a reasonable view of the facts.

Reader Comments

adb

June 13, 2007 7:00 AM

All right--I'll take a shot at this...

I don't think the perception of the media is "anti-Detroit" so much as "anti-Detroit/pro-Japanese". According to the Detroit News, "While Toyota brands still scored slightly better than Ford in the J.D. Power study, the Japanese automaker took only four of the top spots in the 19 vehicle segments, down from 11 a year ago. Joe Ivers, J.D. Power's executive director of quality and customer satisfaction, said there's no clear answer for Toyota's drop. But several vehicles brought its quality performance down this year, including the Corolla, Prius and Lexus models."

So, while you devoted plenty of e-ink to GM's and Chrysler's problems and Ford's victories, you devoted pretty much nothing to Toyota's continuing problems. I'm generally not surprised when I tell people about Toyota's problems--quality issues, recalls, product delays, and that little case of sexual harassment involving their head of NA operations (which, had it been a Big Three exec, would have dominated the headlines for a lot longer)--because it generally gets glossed over by the major media.

That, I think, is the issue...

David Welch

June 13, 2007 9:16 AM

Actually, Tokyo correspondent Ian Rowley has written about Toyota's recalls. Senior writer Michael Orey has written about the sexual harrassment suit at Toyota and I have written about the incentives Toyota has employed to push hybrid sales. I cannot help it if other publications "gloss over" Toyota's problems. We at BusinessWeek have not.

Gerry H

June 13, 2007 10:51 AM

I'm surprised this quality discussion goes on and on.
We've known for some years two "foreign" makes have consistently had top quality for some years- Toyota and Honda. This years CR annual car issue says it again. However paying top dollar doesn't necessarily give you good quality, again the CR issue tells it all.
Of course this is initial quality, long term is another issue. My Chrysler '95 LH is still so reliable and runs so well, with top notch handling, I can't give it up.

Patricia

June 13, 2007 10:55 AM

Here you go again. hecklers?? None of the comments that I've seen had anything but a professional tone. Mine was the toughest -I asked for you to be fired.
I will only address one of your inaccuracies:
You said in this post: "I think many people have a tendency to view the Big Three together."
YES, DEAR, YOU! YOU had many comments in your infamous post decrying "DETROIT", that is, the Big 3. You don't call Toyota or Honda "JAPAN" b/c that would mean all the Nippon car companies. But you are ok about presenting the Big 3 together as "Detroit" b/c you are biased. Here are your quotes:

"Here we go again. After years of quality improvements from Detroit,"

"those companies have been dining on Motown’s market share for decades now. Sure Detroit is close, by the numbers anyway. But consumers won’t believe that Detroit is as good as Honda and Toyota"

David, why don't you just admit it: you wrote a biased article. The "hecklers" will forgive you :)

Sherman Lin

June 13, 2007 11:11 AM

The "blame the media mentality for an anti detroit bias" is part of detroits problems.

You can't fix a problem when you refuse to acknowledge the problems existence.

Joel

June 13, 2007 12:04 PM

"f every company’s quality is equal, which GM argues because the problems per 100 vehicles are close, then you’d think the winner every year would just about be generated at random. They’re all so close that the vagaries of a consumer survey would turn up Chevy one year, Honda the next, and so on. It doesn’t. So we must conclude that the Japanese brands which domestic loyalists love to hate—Honda and Toyota—are just a bit better. That’s not bias, it’s just a reasonable view of the facts."

It's not. You then look at other factors, one of which is perception. I read an article over at, I believe, the Detroit News which points to customers' past history with products that make them loyalists to particular brand. According to the article, while people may find the American vehicles just fine, their past experience with Honda and Toyota's products was fine as well, prompting them to stay with the brands. THAT'S why the domestic automakers are constantly told their products have to be better AND offered at a lower price. Unless Honda and Toyota have a downturn in their products (fat chance), most buyers are more than content to stick with the tried and true.

Ed Arcuri

June 13, 2007 12:51 PM

I do notice that "the media," generally, do not comment on the enormous advantage Japanese companies get from that nation's trade and trust policies. Japan is closed to foreign companies. Closed. Thus, Japanese auto manufacurers have a 2.5 million unit headstart on worldwide competitors. Japan allows company relationships (encourages them) which would be deemed anti-competitive here. Japan uses the "shaken" system of inspections to drive down the value of used cars and encourage Japanese citizens to buy new cars. This subsidy is never identified as such by the so-called business media.
Where GM and Toyota compete equally as foreign companies, in China, GM is burying them.

adb

June 13, 2007 3:17 PM

I stand corrected--although John Q. Public (or John Q. Blogger, for that matter) may not necessarily connect the dots from three smaller stories from three different authors in two different locations and necessarily conclude that Toyota is no longer the untouchable automaker it once was.

naif

June 13, 2007 5:20 PM

if the Detroit auto companys had been listening to the auto media 30 years ago they would not be in the mess they are in today. to many bean counters.

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Want the straight scoop on the auto industry? Our man in Detroit David Welch, brings keen observations and provocative perspective on the auto business.

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