Ford scores big in quality survey

*The* big trick for Ford will be trying to make this quality peak the standard rather than the Detroit flash in the pan
Ford scores big in quality survey
DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. took a big step forward in its comeback bid Wednesday by taking the top spot in five of 19 vehicle categories in the 2007 survey by J.D. Power and Associates, more than any other automaker, including vaunted Toyota Motor Corp.
The closely watched study of vehicle quality in the first 90 days of ownership of 2007 model year vehicles showed nearly across-the-board improvement for the Dearborn automaker. All of its domestic brands -- Ford, Lincoln and Mercury -- scored above average for the first time in recent memory. By contrast, all of the domestic brands of General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group scored below average.
Moreover, J.D. Power also gave the Platinum Plant Quality Award for producing vehicles yielding the fewest defects to Ford's Wixom Assembly Plant, which stopped making cars May 31. The plant produced the Lincoln Town Car, which averages 35 problems per 100 vehicles.
"The news is certainly positive for Ford and for all of our brands," said Bennie Fowler, Ford's vice president of quality and advanced manufacturing, at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit where the study was released Wednesday. "And hopefully, what the buying public will realize now is that Ford is serious about its quality and results are certainly showing that."
The news was especially good for Ford, which in recent weeks ranked last in the Harbour Report on factory productivity and was slammed by suppliers as being the worst automaker to do business with. The results also mirror a similar internal study Ford conducted that showed the automaker in a dead-heat for second place in quality with Toyota and Nissan.
Ford has struggled in the last few years to improve quality and reliability as fast as its key competitors, particularly Toyota and Honda Motor Co.
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.
It is worth noting, he said, that Toyota executives have been speaking publicly about their concerns about maintaining its historically high quality during a time of rapid growth.
"We're not used to seeing their vehicles go backward from a quality standpoint, and several of them did," he said. "It's no big change, but when things go backward for Toyota, it's unusual."
Toyota downplayed the results of the survey. "What's important to our company is to look at the problems customers are experiencing and being No. 1 is not really what's important to us," said Flaurel English, corporate manager/strategic planning for Toyota Motor Sales.
Some 97,000 vehicle owners and lessees responded to the 228-question surveys. Vehicles were evaluated between November 2006 and January 2007.
Porsche again dominated the overall ranking of brands, averaging 91 problems per 100 vehicles, as it had last year. It was followed by Toyota's Lexus brand, Lincoln, Honda, DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz, Ford's Jaguar, Toyota, Mercury, Nissan's Infiniti and Ford.
One black mark for Ford -- its Mazda and Land Rover brands finished last.
A big differentiator among carmakers was how well they launched new vehicles, said Neal Oddes, J.D. Power and Associates' director of product research and analysis.
"Overall in the industry, the launches are very problematic," he said.
Ford had some excellent product launches for the 2007 model year, Oddes said. The new Ford Edge, for example, garnered high marks in the study.
"If the product is ready, we'll ship it," Fowler said. "If it's not, we'll make some changes. If it means we'll take a little heat for that, so be it. But you only get one chance to get it right."
The Dearborn automaker earned segment awards for the Ford Mustang, Lincoln Mark LT, Lincoln MKZ, Mercury Milan and Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Milan bumped the Toyota Camry from the top spot.
Mazda is controlled by Ford. In all, 14 Ford models ranked in the top three of their respective categories.
"Hopefully, some momentum is starting to build," Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president of global product development, told The News in an interview.
Mercedes, which has seen its quality fall in recent years, rebounded, finishing in the fifth spot, up from 25 last year.
"This underscores that we're not only back on our game in delivering to customer's expectations," said Donna Boland, Mercedes spokeswoman.
South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co.'s had mixed results in the survey. Its Hyundai and Kia brands tied at 12th place, with Hyundai down from 3rd place a year ago, but Kia up from 24th.
"During the survey period we launched five new models, and feel good that we remained at the industry average," said Miles Johnson, a Hyundai spokesman.
Three GM vehicles took top honors in their categories, the Pontiac Grand Prix sedan, Chevrolet Express van and Chevrolet Silverado Classic HD pickup.
But the company was not satisfied that its brands were rated below average.
"Do we want to be on that side of the equation? No," said Jamie Hresko, GM's vice president of quality.
"If I was to summarize, it was really a mixed bag of results."
None of Chrysler's vehicles scored top honors, and all three of its brands -- Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge, were rated well below average.
But Chrysler said it tracked improvement internally.
"It's not that you don't look at the material," Chrysler spokesman Sam Locricchio said. "But you have to look at a bigger picture view in terms of other metrics that are out there."
Oddes said Chrysler was impacted by bumps in new vehicle launches. Chrysler released 10 new cars and trucks last year.
When it comes to quality, Chrysler still has a way to go, said Erich Merkle, an analyst with Grand Rapids-based IRN Inc.
"Quite honestly, they always have been sub-par to (GM and Ford)," he said.
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Jim Higgins wrote:
And Toyota or Lexis won the award for 4 of the 8 truck/SUV categories and Honda got one too, leaving 3 for the Michigan 3. 07088

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