US automakers push quality to try to answer the imports

Although the quality of US cars has been dubbed poor in the past, in contrast to some of the imports -- notably the Japanese -- the fufuture may be more bright.

Simply, carmakers hear the motorist talking -- and complaining.

While the quality of the domestic product may never achieve the super-high standards that are attached to many of the cars coming out of Japan, it nonetheless is on the rise.

For example, the quality of product now coming out of General Motors' new Oklahoma City assembly plant is comparable to that of Volkswagen, according to Gene Tremblay, a stock-market analyst with Wellington Management Company, Boston. VW maintains that its US plant near Pittsburgh is producing Rabbits with a quality equivalent to those built in West Germany.

VW, in fact, had a hard time "educating" US suppliers on its quality standards and, at one time, was turning back 10 to 15 percent of all incoming components at its US assembly plant, according to James McLernon, president of Volkswagen of America Inc.

Mr. McLernon was a high-level veteran of GM before switching to VW.

Chrysler Corporation, neck-deep in red ink, is making a major commitment to higher quality in its 1981-model cars, the president Lee A. Iacocca, reports. The success of the downsized Imperial hangs on quality, say Chrysler executives, some of whom acknowledge the shortcomings of the company in the past.

If Chrysler's brand-new J-cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, are to enjoy long-lasting success in the marketplace, it is crucial that the quality image be untarnished from the start.

The front-wheel-drive J-car is a replacement for the tarnished Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare, both of which gained unwanted attention because of a proclivity to rust in the front fenders. The company ultimately opted to replace the offending parts at no cost to the buyer if the motorist made enough noise. Under pressure, Chrysler expanded the "coverage" to all buyers, but not everyone even today knows about it.

This is the sort of thing the beleaguered carmaker is attempting to eliminate right from the start.

Ford Motor Company, also deeply in the red for the year, has had a barrage of design and other problems for the last several years, such as the Pinto negligent-homicide trial in Indiana and recalcitrant automatic transmissions which, asserts the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have a tendency to hop into reverse if the motorist leaves the engine running when he leaves the car.

The automaker retorts by saying the transmissions are not at fault. Rather, in cases where the transmission has plopped into reverse, the motorist had failed to firmly push the lever into neutral.

Whatever the answer, Ford has had a barrage of bad publicity over the issue.

In the last 15 years the US auto industry has recalled tens of millions of cars, sometimes voluntarily but usually under duress by the federal government.

No matter how much improvements the US auto industry is able to achieve in the quality of the cars it builds, it will never fully reach the quality of fit and finish that identifies the cars built in Japan. The attitude of the work force is entirely different in the two countries.The commitment of the line worker to the company, usually found in Japan, is lacking, by and large, in the United States.

Even so, the US industry is making rapid headway in other areas of the business.

"I think the new US cars are better engineered," Mr. Tremblay of Wellington Management asserts. "Also," he adds, "I think the gas-mileage differential will essentially be wiped out as the US auto industry continues to redesign its cars. GM will probably achieve better packaging than the Japanese, as well."

Nonetheless, the quality issue, either perceived or real, is a hurdle that Detroit automakers are trying hard to clear.

If Ford's forthcoming Escort-Lynx cars, successors to the Pinto-Bobcat, run into quality problems at the start, then the long-run success of the cars will be jeopardized. This is highly unlikely, however, Mr. Tremblay says. Ford is making a massive effort to build quality into the new subcompact line.

Chrysler, too, mindful of the risk that shoddy workmanship in its new K-car would mean, is trying hard to ride herd on the assembly process as dutifully as it can.

If the 1981-model domestic cars fall short of public expectations, it won't be because the manufacturers didn't try.

Red ink on the ledger is a pretty sharp prod, even for Detroit.

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