Fords Quality Creeps Up

by : Mike Bartley

In this year's initial quality survey by J.D. Power and Associates, the Ford Motor Co. has cut in half its long-term quality gap with the Toyota Motor Corp. That gives Ford a good reason to celebrate. But Toyota is still on top of quality survey and Detroit automakers have to exert more effort to close the gap.

Ford and the General Motors Corp. are in a dead heat for third place behind Toyota and the Honda Motor Co. when it comes to the quality of its older cars and trucks and this is what Ford Americas President Mark Fields told employees in his weekly Webcast on Wednesday.

Fields cited a study of 2004 models driven by customers over a three-year period that was prepared for Ford by the RDA Group - a market research firm based in Bloomfield Hills. "We're seeing consistent improvements and gaining traction," Fields said, adding that he expects to see more dramatic improvements next year when the 2005 model year vehicles are put under the microscope.

In May, the Dearborn-based automaker surprised the whole industry by taking more top awards than any other automaker in J.D. Powers' closely watched new car quality survey. The survey measures customer satisfaction during the first 90 days of ownership. Fields said that the RDA report on three-year-old models underscores Ford's progress.

RDA Group Managing Director Dennis Pietrowski confirmed the findings, which he said were based on data from 28,717 vehicles from all manufacturers. "This is quite encouraging for Ford," Pietrowski said. "We've seen them cut the gap they have with Toyota in half."

Ford spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari said that the latest numbers are further proof that the company is on the right track when it comes to quality. "Long-term durability continues to move in the right direction," she said. "We are at industry average according to this survey, essentially tied with GM and trailing Honda and Toyota."

J.D. Power survey weighed customer satisfaction and the number of problems encountered by owners of 2004 model year vehicles. It found that Ford's models experienced five percent fewer issues than in previous year's survey of 2003 model year vehicles, marking the fourth straight year of improvement for the Dearborn-based automaker.

Erich Merkle, an analyst at IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, noted that several surveys have shown Ford's vehicle quality is improving. "They actually are making some real strides, but the perception is taking a long time to catch up."

Ford Quality Chief Bennie Fowler, in an interview, said that Ford's improvement is indicative of "attention to detail and responding what customers want."

Ford has been scrambling to improve quality since a series of quality mishaps plagued the auto maker earlier in the decade. J.D. Power and Associates analyst Neal Oddes noted that Ford's newly-launched vehicles are helping drive the auto maker's gains.

Standouts in the long-term study included the Mercury Sable sedan, which led its segment, and the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles, which showed big improvements in quality and customer satisfaction. The Ford Ranger pickup also did well in the quality assessment. The Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands also topped their respective classes in overall paint appearance, Gattari noted.

RDA has been conducting the annual survey for Ford since the late 1990s. The firm conducts similar studies for other automakers, and its findings have historically hewed close to those independently conducted by J.D. Power. In fact, RDA's annual report on new car quality showed Ford in a statistical tie with Toyota before the release of the J.D. Power study.

Ford is optimistic that strides of improvement will continue like the remarkable performance to bolster goodwill as well as sales.