''I'd much rather buy an American automobile, but I can no longer take the risk,'' writes David B. Huler of Rosharon, Texas, in response to a readership survey in The Christian Science Monitor Jan. 28.

Tom McMillen of Castleton, N.Y., counters: ''When the combined efforts of union and management can compete, I think Americans will willingly buy American products.''

Feryl Reynolds of Trumansburg, N.Y., adds: ''Let the better product sell the most.''

To millions of car buyers, the better product is still stamped, ''Built in Japan.''

The wide-ranging survey, distributed by Obun Intereurope, Ltd., Tokyo, drew responses from 1,153 readers, of whom 578, or 50.1 percent, acknowledged owning and driving a Japanese car. The other half own and operate either a US-built car or a European import.

Clearly, millions of US car buyers believe that Japanese cars are not only more dependable and fuel efficient, but also of better quality and cost less than those built by Detroit. Too, buyers are increasingly aware of quality or lack thereof.

Richard P. Theokas of Montgomery, Ala., writes: ''Quality sells.''

A total of 373 respondents rate Japanese-built cars as ''vastly superior'' in workmanship while 374 say they are ''superior'' and 205 say ''much better'' than US-built cars. Only 23 rate the Japanese vehicles as ''poor,'' while 3 [out of 1 ,153] say ''very poor.'' Of the respondents, 142 rate US and Japanese-built cars ''about the same.''

On fuel economy, 253, or 21.9 percent of the total, say Japanese cars are ''vastly superior,'' while 413 say ''superior.'' Only 4 respondents call their performance ''poor'' in this area.

Significantly, those who now own a Japanese car possess a higher opinion of that nation's motor vehicles than those who do not. For example, 22 percent of those who consider the workmanship on Japanese cars ''vastly superior'' to that of US-built cars, now own a Japanese car. Only 10.1 percent of the non-owners rate the Japanese so high. Of the owners, 47.1 percent say the workmanship was ''about the same,'' while 39.9 percent of the non-owners checked the ''same'' box.

It was on the safety issue that the US-built cars come off the best. Only 29 respondents vote the Japanese cars as ''vastly superior'' in safety while 71 and 98, respectively, say ''superior'' and ''much better.'' However, 566 - nearly half the total response to the survey - rate the Japanese cars as ''about the same'' in safety as US-built cars, while 260 rate them ''poor,'' and 72 ''very poor'' in terms of safety.

Allan M. Herdman of Branchville, N.J., sums up: ''I refuse to buy a Japanese car because I feel American cars are safer. This outweighs better gas mileage and gadgets.''

A survey of 5,000 people nationwide by J.D. Power Associates of Westlake Village, Calif., says Japanese auto manufacturers rank first in dependability, fuel economy, value, engineering, low purchase price, the ability to build subcompacts, and overall leadership-management of the companies themselves.

US firms get top marks for safety, styling, parts, and service.

''I now own my third Datsun Z-car,'' reports Dr. Jane Love of Crofton, Md. ''When the US auto industry makes a car as well engineered and as much fun to drive, then I'll buy one.''

Indeed, that's the rub for US carmakers. Despite its $80 billion program to redesign, reengineer, and resize its total automotive fleet, getting the message across to the ''tire kicker'' on the hunt for a new car is hard. Too, the problems that plague some of the domestic industry's new vehicles do not help although many motorists do believe that the domestic carmakers have upgraded the quality of their cars,. Even so, the image persists that US-built cars still have a long way to go.

''The perception of US motorists is that US quality is improved, but still poor,'' says B.J. Coughlan, general marketing manager for Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford Motor Company.

In line with Mr. Coughlan's view, John N. Thomson of Eugene, Ore., who does not own a Japanese automobile, rates them ''much better'' than US cars on workmanship and fuel economy, and ''about the same'' on safety.

In 1982, the Japanese percentage of the entire US auto market hit 22.6 percent, up from 21.7 percent the year before. Without the voluntary Japanese curb on auto exports to the US, some observers say the penetration figure in the US could hit 40 percent. All of this is contributing to a huge US trade deficit with Japan.

''Right now we face an imbalance of trade in favor of the Japanese of approximately $20 billion a year,'' says Lee A. Iacocca, Chrysler chairman. ''More than $13 billion of that is in cars and trucks alone.''

The problem is so grave that even the US Congress has been waving a slowdown flag in the face of the Japanese.

The House of Representatives last year passed a local-content bill that would , if enacted into law, compel Japanese carmakers to include an increasingly larger percentage of US-made parts and labor in their automobiles.

With 250,000 American auto workers still on long-term layoff, 715 of the respondents to the Monitor survey feel that Japanese automobile imports are contributing to the high rate of unemployment in the US; 414 say they do not. Twenty-four (2.1 percent) say they don't know.

Flush with success in the global auto market and feeling the heat in the US, Japanese automakers have extended for a third year their voluntary curb on car shipments to the US.

The voluntary quota, which took effect April 1, 1981, limits Japanese car shipments to 1,680,000 units a year. However, Mr. Iacocca says this does not include station wagons and some specialty vehicles. The real total, he declares, is 1,830,000 units. The pact expires March 31, 1984.

Many survey participants point out that trade is a two-way street, yet very few non-Japanese-built cars, regardless of the country of manufacture, are sold in Japan each year.

Contrary to what many readers believe, however, the Japanese do notm levy a heavy tariff on imported cars. Even so, there are a series of nontariff barriers that sharply increase the cost of US autos in Japan.

''The current system of modifying cars in port is very expensive and almost doubles the price,'' says Frank Langdon, a political-science professor at the University of British Columbia. ''To make a car in the US which could sell competitively on a large scale in Japan at the US price, it would have to be dumped.''

Japan also has a multilayered distribution system that is difficult for importers to crack.

''Limited surveys indicate that some Japanese would buy foreign cars if the price were comparable with similar Japanese cars,'' Professor Langdon reports.

''There was a period of explicit protection of the Japanese automobile industry in the late 1950s to the late 1960s,'' says Philip Jones, administrative director of the Program on US-Japan Relations at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.

''In fact,'' he says, ''the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was extremely worried that many of the Japanese automobile companies could not meet the American competition and would go under.

''This sounds strange to our ears today, but it was a genuine concern at that time.''

Indeed, the US auto industry, preoccupied with its large and growing US market and its large stakes in Europe, ignored the Japanese market in its growth stage.

''I think it was the wrong corporate strategy, not just 'inadequate' marketing efforts,'' Mr. Jones concludes.

Meanwhile, Japanese carmakers are responding to increasing pressure by setting up production facilities in the US - Honda, Nissan, and now Toyota which has a tentative agreement to build cars in a vacant GM plant in California.

If the GM-Toyota deal goes through, Japanese firms will have invested more than $1 billion in US production facilities by 1984, according to the Department of Commerce.

''I wouldn't buy a Japanese automobile or take one if given to me,'' one unsigned letter states. However, the reader acknowledges buying a 1983 Volvo DL wagon ''for less than a Cavalier or Eagle or Malibu wagon.''

Persuading more car buyers to ''think Detroit'' is a continuing tough assignment for the US auto industry, no matter where the imports originate.

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