Detroit Roars Back After Years of Quality Issues

A Ford C-MAX plug-in hybrid vehicle comes off the assembly line at the Michigan Assembly Plant.
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A Ford C-MAX plug-in hybrid vehicle comes off the assembly line at the Michigan Assembly Plant.

Isaac Davis, a salesman from the Detroit suburb of Southfield said he would love to buy a car from his home state. "But," he lamented, "I just don't think the quality is there."

Davis isn't alone. In recent decades, millions of Americans have walked away from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler because of quality, reliability and service problems.

Even Mark Reuss, president of GM's North American operations, admitted the maker was producing "crappy cars."

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But does it still? Not if you look at the latest data. Domestic brands have been rapidly climbing in critical quality measurements such as the Initial Quality Survey and the Total Quality Index released by California-based research firm Strategic Visions. According to the TQI, Motown manufacturers led or at least tied for the lead in 12 of 21 individual vehicle categories.

While Volkswagen had the highest score of any manufacturer, GM had more segment winners, products like the midsize Chevrolet Volt plug-in, and the Chevy Traverse crossover. In fact, the domestic giant scored wins in twice as many segments—six in all—than the traditional quality leader, Toyota.

"There's no questioning domestic car makers want to lead," said Alexander Edwards, President of Strategic Vision. "For the first time in over a decade our comprehensive and complete study of Quality resulted in more domestic winners than imports."

The results of the Total Quality Index don't appear to be a fluke. In one study after another, GM, Ford and Chrysler have been gaining momentum.

While Lexus led in the latest J.D. Power Customer Service Index—and measure of how dealers perform—Cadillac was close behind and the GMC marque led among mass market brands.

GM's surge in such studies is particularly noteworthy because it lagged behind not only the imports but also its cross-town rival Ford for a number of years. Ford has taken some hits lately for problems with its Sync infotainment system and a high-efficiency transmission used on some of its products. Nonetheless, the second-largest of the domestic makers has been building a strong reputation for quality and customer service, according to analysts.

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Even Chrysler, long the domestic laggard in terms of quality and reliability, has been gaining ground since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009. Chrysler has performed especially well in terms of so-called "things-gone-right" surveys that focus on what delights consumers rather than what might be otherwise ignored as insignificant problems.

"In today's market, it's difficult to find a low quality vehicle," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, Inc., a California-based research firm. "The quality of vehicles from all manufacturers has risen to the highest level in history and what delineates a car or truck is owner satisfaction."

AutoPacific's most recent Vehicle Satisfaction Awards found the Cadillac Escalade was the single highest-rated model, while Buick tied perennial leader Mercedes-Benz as the most satisfying brand. (GM also had more segment winners in this study, seven in all, than any other manufacturer.)

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Industry officials note a strong correlation between brand loyalty and quality, reliability and customer satisfaction. Internal GM data indicates its retention rate—the number of owners who trade in for another GM product—has gone up from around 35 percent at the time of its own 2009 bankruptcy to 51 percent during the first quarter of 2013.

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That's still behind industry leader Toyota, at 58 percent, but still translates into tens of thousands of additional sales each month. For Chrysler, the rise in quality and customer satisfaction is credited with sale increases every month for the last three years, outpacing the overall recovery of the U.S. market.

There are other ways to measure Detroit's upturn, notably including the decline in incentive costs—loyal buyers require fewer rebates to get them back into showrooms—and increasing transaction prices.

Ford, for example, saw its average transaction price—what customers actually spend after options and incentives are factored in—rise 3.6 percent to nearly $33,000 a vehicle by the end of the first quarter. That helped the maker generate the strongest results ever for the North American market, pre-tax earnings of $2.4 billion and operating margins of 11 percent.

While things are clearly improving for Detroit's Big Three, analysts warn that the makers can't afford to make mistakes. A pair of lawsuits filed against Ford over alleged problems with its high-mileage EcoBoost engine could end up being embarrassing, for example.

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The biggest hurdle may be convincing potential buyers like Davis, the salesman, to give Detroit another shot.

"Their challenge," said Strategic Visions President Edwards, will be "to communicate the positive attributes of their products," to get import-oriented buyers back into domestic showrooms.

But he cautions that it won't be easy to lure back those millions of customers who have become loyal to the imports.

-By NBC News Contributor Paul Eisenstein; Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau