Ford: Quality equal to Toyota
In survey of 31,000 new vehicle owners, Ford beats industry average for problems.
Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News
Ford / Mercury
The 2007 Mercury Milan was one of the most problem-free vehicles from any manufacturer, with just 910 issues reported per 1,000 vehicles. See full image
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In terms of initial vehicle quality, Ford Motor Co. is in a statistical dead-heat for second place with Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., according to a new study the Dearborn automaker plans to release today. Honda Motor Co. is the quality leader.
The report is based on an annual survey of 31,000 new vehicle owners that was conducted for Ford by the RDA Group, a market research firm based in Bloomfield Hills. The study evaluated 2007 model cars and trucks from all full-line manufacturers and asked drivers to list any problems they had encountered during their first 90 days of ownership.
The Detroit News reviewed the findings with sources familiar with the report. These sources said four Ford vehicles -- the Mercury Milan, Ford Shelby GT-500, Ford Expedition EL and Lincoln Navigator -- led their segments in initial quality.
Improving quality is a major goal for Ford, which is struggling to hold on to what remains of its U.S. market share after years of losses to foreign competitors.
The RDA study found Ford cars and trucks had 1,458 problems per 1,000 vehicles -- 32 fewer problems than the industry average of 1,490 and 128 fewer than Ford customers reported last year.
The results were even better for Ford's North American brands -- Ford, Lincoln and Mercury -- which combined had 1,456 problems per 1,000 vehicles. Sources said the overall number was slightly hurt by the automaker's European brands.
The Milan was one of the most problem-free vehicles from any manufacturer, with just 910 issues reported per 1,000 vehicles.
Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari confirmed the existence of the report, but would not discuss the findings. She said the company will release the details today, but wanted to tell employees first. She said improving quality is a central aim of the company's Way Forward turnaround plan.
"We are pleased with the direction of our quality, but we're not satisfied," Gattari said. "This is something we have to continue to be diligent with. Quality, along with safety, innovation and design, are our top priorities in delivering more vehicles that customers want."
Consumers need convincing
While the RDA study found that Ford has closed the quality gap with its Japanese rivals, it also found the company still lags its Asian competitors in customer satisfaction and another key metric: whether or not customers would recommend the brand to other car buyers.
RDA has been conducting the annual survey for Ford since the late 1990s. The marketing firm conducts similar studies for other automakers, and its findings have historically hewed close to those of the closely-watched annual initial quality survey independently conducted by J.D. Power and Associates of Westlake Village, Calif.
Most of Ford's brands lagged well behind Toyota in last year's J.D. Power study, but those results reflected a new survey methodology the firm adopted for 2006.
Other independent analysts have also noted a marked improvement in Ford's quality in recent years -- most notably Consumer Reports magazine, which recently declared the Milan and its Blue Oval sibling, the Ford Fusion, the most impressive new vehicles of the 2007 model year.
"We see Ford as the top domestic in many ways," said David Champion, senior director for automotive testing at Consumer Reports. "They've realized they're going to be eaten for lunch if they don't produce reliable vehicles."
Champion said Ford's newer products show a marked improvement over those the automaker was turning out just a few years ago. He said the company has learned from past mistakes as well as from its Japanese affiliate, Mazda Motor Corp., which shares many common production practices with Toyota.
Spreading the news
Improved quality is helping Ford reduce its warranty costs, according to another recent internal report obtained by The News.
And dealers say improved quality is helping bring customers back into their showrooms.
"We're not seeing the recalls after the launch of the vehicles like we used to," said Tim Mullahey of Mullahey Ford in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He said rampant recalls in the 1990s did immeasurable damage to Ford's brand image. Now, he and other dealers are touting Ford's recent quality improvements in their advertising. "The problem is really one of perception. We're trying to overcome the stereotypes."
Doug North, of North Brothers Ford in Westland, hopes the company will also do more to trumpet the good quality news.
"We need to be better cheerleaders for our successes," he said.
Recent Ford ads are touting the merits of Ford vehicles over competitors' models. They are naming names and staking claims to best-in-class performance and features. North wants to see more of that going forward.
Still, it takes more than strong initial quality reports to convince car buyers to stick with a brand, Champion said.
"It's the long-term durability that will really put Ford back on the map."
You can reach Bryce Hoffman at (313) 222-2443 or email@example.com