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Big 3 Rides: Do You Love'em or Hate'em?

The Big Three
CNBC.com
The Big Three

The latest University of Michigan results on customer satisfaction with automakers are a bit perplexing. On one hand they show there's a wider gap between the Big 3 and their foreign rivals. On the other, these results fly in the face of numerous other surveys and studies that show the Big 3 edging closer and closer to competitors when it comes to quality and reliability.

Who's right?

Both, actually.

Michigan's survey reflects customers being unhappy with the mileage of the cars, trucks, and SUVs they've bought from Detroit automakers. Seems to make sense, since the domestics make the bulk of the SUVs and trucks that have fallen out of favor as gas prices have surged higher.

Also, with the Big 3 strapped financially, U of M researchers believe Detroit automakers are probably not spending as much as their rivals on programs designed to take care of customers.

But this does not mean Detroit's failing to pull closer to the Japanese and Germans when it comes to quality and dependability. From J.D. Power to Consumer Reports, almost everyone agrees Detroit builds a better car, truck, or SUV than five or 10 years ago. And I suspect they will further narrow the difference between themselves and foreign rivals in the years to come.

I think the new Michigan results re-enforce a huge issue for Detroit: the perception gap.

Ask Bob Lutz at General Motors, Alan Mulally at Ford, or Jim Press at Chrysler (and yes, I've asked all of them) and they will tell you that changing the ideas people have in their heads about a Big 3 model is one of the most maddening challenges for them.

Frankly, I can't blame them. Lutz, Mulally, and Press are paying the price for careless and boob-like decisions their predecessors made years ago. Someday, the perception gap will close. I'm not sure when, but the latest results from the U of M show Detroit still has a ways to go.

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The competition:

- Toyota Motor

- Honda Motor

- Nissan

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Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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