Are US carmakers making the grade on quality? The only way Detroit can successfully compete with the imports, meaning mainly the Japanese, is by building cars of equal quality and value on a wide scale. Whether import quality is ''for real'' or just perceived, it is a matter of vital concern to the 1 in every 12 Americans who make their living directly from the auto business.
''A door is one of the most complicated parts on a car today,'' asserts George F. Butts, vice-president for quality and productivity at Chrysler Corporation.
It's easy for a door to get out of whack.
Back in the early part of 1980, Chrysler decided to set up quality-improvement teams to try to improve, not only the integrity of its doors , but dozens of other components as well.
The door-system team includes seven people, Mr. Butts says. What do we have on a door? he asks. Rubber, a door-lock system, handles, mirror, inner and outer panels welded together and fitted to an aperture panel, and more.
''Wind noise, water leaks, and glass stabilization are problems,'' he continues. So is getting the doors of a car to open and shut properly. In other words, a door is a complicated, tricky component in any automobile.
In the last year and a half the team has become the corporation's expert on doors.
''Anytime we're developing a change on a door, the door-system team goes in and says to the engineer: 'Wait a minute; you can't do that because we tried that before; this has got to go this way or that way; or you can't bend that flange.'
''These are the kinds of 'swat' teams we have. They go where the problem is and swat it, feeding back information to engineering, so that we don't make the same mistake twice - if, in fact, we've made a mistake.''
When General Motors launched its J-car project a few years ago, it decided to make the body sides in a single stamping, thus eliminating the variability in door-opening dimensions. Then the stamping went to a laser beam to align the doors. At the same time, this reduced the consumer effort required to open and shut a door.
The big automaker, along with Chrysler, Ford, and American Motors, was facing up to a major point of customers' dissatisfaction with the cars they buy.
The point is, all US carmakers are painfully aware of the need - the absolute necessity if they are to survive - to boost the quality of their cars and they cite figures to indicate they are well on their way.
Ford insists its warranty claims are down 25 percent on its 1981-model cars, compared with its 1980 models. Actually, the 1982-model cars with Detroit-built nameplates are perhaps the best cars the American industry has ever built.
''I think we've closed the quality gap considerably in the past year,'' asserts John A. Manoogian, director of quality assurance for Ford.
''But we still have to make more improvements - obviously,'' he adds.
Indeed, hundreds of thousands of new cars are recalled by U.S. manufacturers every year - a healthy situation, according to Detroit. What it shows is Detroit's determination to bring its products up to standard and not ignore a problem unless forced into a safety-related recall by the government.
Ford, for example, is recalling 390,000 of its new front-drive subcompact Escort/Lynx and EXP/LN7 to repair a carburetor defect which, according to Ford, may cause the car engines to stall.
The imports, too, have recalled huge numbers of cars over the years.
Despite the flaps and recalls, Dr. Ernst F. Beuler, a metallurgist and head of Volkswagen's quality-assurance program in the United States, agrees that the American auto industry is well on its way to building better cars.
''The US industry is learning to use the space in a smaller car more successfully - something that the US industry got from the imports.''
Well, just what is quality in an automobile?
''Quality,'' according to Robert W. Decker, General Motors' vice-president for quality and liability, ''is conformity to requirements that result in a satisfied customer,'' a definition that satisfies its domestic competitors to a Q.
''We feel strongly that quality and customer satisfaction are synonymous,'' Mr. Decker adds.
''Quality,'' reports VW's Dr. Beuler, ''is every facet of a company's activities.''
VW, which enjoys a high image of quality despite a difficult, problem-fraught switch from the rear-engine, air-cooled beetle to the front-engine, water-cooled Rabbit in the mid-1970s, says that quality-control people came to the US from Germany two years before the first VW rolled off its US assembly plant in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, in 1978.
''We used the two years to communicate, not in language, but in philosophy,'' he asserts. It also was a prod to Detroit.
''To the customer, quality means fit for use,'' Beuler observes. ''That means good workmanship. But then there is the long life of a vehicle, safety, comfort, economy, and handling - all those things together are part of the quality measurement.
''So you have to look not only at the fit-and-finish. To the company, quality is image and reputation so as to ensure long-term survival in a competitive market. To the employee, quality is price and a long-term job guarantee.''
Thus, quality is many things to many people. And contrary to the usual view, it doesn't cost money, according to Decker of GM. ''High quality doesn't mean higher prices,'' he insists. ''Good quality leads to lower costs and higher productivity.
''You only have to do the job once. You don't have to have anybody sorting out the bad stuff. And you don't have to have anybody repairing the poorer material.''
Furthermore, you have a better chance of ensuring the car buyer is satisfied.
''What US automakers must do is restore their reputation for quality,'' according to Harry Holzwasser, chief executive officer of Arrow Automotive Industries, a leading automotive remanufacturing firm, and the commitment of top management is basic to the goal.
No one disagrees that it all begins at the top.
''We have the support at the top level of management,'' insists Manoogian of Ford, ''as well as the hourly workers.'' Then he adds: ''We have established aggressive targets for year-over-year improvement in all our products. Among the goals are better teamwork and better interaction and interface with all the disciplines in the corporation.
''The workers generally reflect what top management wants.''
Like the other US carmakers, Ford Motor Company organized reliability teams for each one of the subsystems on a car and includes representation from engineering, manufacturing, assembly, purchasing, outside suppliers, and service.
A modern automobile is made up of about 100 subsystems.
The reliability teams examine and review the historic problems with building a car and then optimize the design, manufacturing, and assembly processes on a product that won't hit the road for several years at least.
''We also have what we call a total-vehicle sign-off,'' reports Manoogian, who was a US marine in World War II.