The Nation's Pulse

We Can Work It Out

American car makers are earning the right to win back buyers' trust -- though it might take another 20 years.

By 3.20.07

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How do you recover trust once lost?

The dilemma's as real for American car companies as it is for estranged couples in divorce court as a result of some extramarital hanky-panky.

American cars have improved dramatically over the past few years; the "quality control gap" is not nearly as wide as it once was. As machines, American-brand cars are sometimes actually better-built than their equivalent Japanese competitors. (The GM 3800 series V-6, for example, is both endlessly durable and simple and cheap to maintain. Conversely, Honda's recently let loose with some iffy transmissions that tend to fail early and often -- and Toyota had a major recall over a sludge problem with one of its big-selling engines.)

The days of genuinely awful cars with egregious build quality and serious design defects are long gone.

However, the perception lingers. And that can be just as devastating as the actuality of a Fiero with Chevette running gear.

It's hard to get buyers to give GM or Ford or Chrysler another go at their business after having been burned in the past -- even if the "burning" took place 20 years ago. People have long memories for stuff like that. Anyone who bought a mid-1980s Oldsmobile diesel (or a Dodge with "lean burn combustion") has that debacle seared into their consciousness like an event requiring trauma counseling.

In the meanwhile, a great many of these former GM/Ford/Chrysler loyalists went over to Toyota or Honda -- where they enjoyed good service, good value, etc. The cars generally worked; the dealer was friendly and competent. In contrast to their experience with the domestics, it was akin to an oasis in the desert.

Why would they risk going back? Would you give a "second chance" to an accountant who screwed up your return? A doctor who operated on the wrong leg -- even if he had gone back to medical school and been lauded for his abilities by the AMA? Why should the consequences of poor customer service, etc. be any different when the business at issue is an automaker? Just a reality check.

And then there's the secondary fallout.

Even if the cars themselves are very good these days, the fact that GM, Ford and Chrysler have that ongoing perception problem with buyers means domestic-brand vehicles tend to lose value (depreciate) faster than the imports with "good names" -- based on the legacy of the latter being "better built," etc. If domestic brand "x" is worth 30 percent less than otherwise equivalent import brand "y" after five years, do you think that fact will tend to discourage buyers from considering brand "x" -- even if "x" is more or less just as solid a car? Of course it will. Who willingly tosses several thousand dollars (or more) in re-sale/trade-in/residual (lease) value out the window? It's a no-brainer.

One may want very much to purchase an American-brand car -- whether for reasons of style or simply out of a sense of loyalty. But when you run the numbers and find that it's going to involve a big sacrifice, financially -- it's a lot harder to make the commitment.

These are the stark realities -- the karmic ghosts of yesteryear that continue to hobble the recovery of America's automakers. There's no getting around them -- at least, not easily or quickly.

Just as it took 20-plus years of spotty quality control, shoddy cars and indifferent service to alienate a buying public that once overwhelmingly bought American brand cars, so it will probably take 20-plus years of building vehicles that are consistently the equal of (if not superior to) the mainline Japanese competition in every way that "value" can be measured -- from what you get up front, to what it's worth ten years down the road. Anything less won't cut it. Any major missteps along the way could be fatal.

We're talking a long-haul commitment here; perhaps even a generational shift. It may take that long for the burned buyers of the '70s and '80s to leave the marketplace -- and for a new cohort that has no memory of the bad old days to take their place.

Recapturing trust is arguably a lot tougher than simply building better cars. And that may ultimately be the epitaph on the tombstone of the U.S. automobile industry.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.