Reliability, Sales Suffer Among U.S. Auto Brands

Honda Motor Co.'s 2006 Ridgeline pickup, a new entry to the U.S. market, was rated as most reliable in its category in Consumer Reports' annual survey.
Honda Motor Co.'s 2006 Ridgeline pickup, a new entry to the U.S. market, was rated as most reliable in its category in Consumer Reports' annual survey. (By Paul Sancya -- Associated Press)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Troubled U.S. automakers reported a slump in February sales yesterday, the same day that Consumer Reports' closely-watched annual car-shopping guide placed nine Japanese brands in its top-10 ranking of vehicle reliability.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus led the magazine's annual survey as the most reliable brand; Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru rounded out the top five. Only one American brand -- Mercury, owned by Ford Motor Co. -- cracked the top 10, at No. 8. Most of the other American brands huddled around the center, with Ford ranking 16th and General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet dropping 10 places to 24, two notches below Cadillac.

Though trailing their Japanese rivals, U.S. brands generally outperformed European offerings in reliability, according to the magazine.

After reporting that sales rose in January, GM yesterday announced a 2.7 percent decline in February U.S. vehicle sales compared with a year ago; Ford's sales dropped 3.4 percent after a January increase. Sales losses at GM and Ford are a major reason behind recent announcements that the two will shed tens of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs and close dozens of factories. In response to slow sales, GM and Ford yesterday said they plan to lower factory output in the second quarter from year-ago levels.

Toyota, the world's largest automaker after GM, yesterday said U.S. sales rose 2.4 percent in February from a year ago. Sales at Honda Motor Co. grew 8.7 percent, and Nissan Motor Co. sales were up 2.2 percent. DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group reported a sales increase of 2.5 percent in February. In the Consumer Reports survey, the Chrysler and Dodge brands moved up to 15th and 18th place, respectively, but Jeep was knocked back five slots to 19th place.

Celebrated European luxury nameplates finished at the bottom of the reliability list. Out of 36 brands, Jaguar placed 31st, a notch above Mercedes-Benz. Porsche dropped 10 spots this year to last place. The Porsche Cayenne -- a sport-utility vehicle than can be priced at more than $100,000 -- was labeled as being one of the industry's worst in reliability.

Among the magazine's most highly rated models were the Honda Civic and Infiniti M35 in the sedan category and the gas-electric hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander among SUVs. (Nissan-made Infiniti earned split marks: The full-size QX56 SUV was rated as the least-reliable vehicle in the survey.)

The Honda Ridgeline, a newcomer to the American-dominated truck scene, was rated by the magazine as its top pick in the category.

The Consumer Reports rankings are based on questionnaires sent to the magazine's subscribers. For 2005, the magazine said it received more than 1 million responses. The survey asked drivers to report serious or expensive problems in 17 different areas of vehicle performance, such as the engine, transmission and electrical systems.

The Consumer Reports rankings come as a perennial blow to Detroit on their annual release -- domestic automakers say they need to overcome negative perceptions about U.S. brands in order to boost sales. Many U.S. car buyers have abandoned American cars over the years because of quality problems. Despite U.S. improvements made in recent years, Japanese automakers have stayed a step ahead, leading to gains in sales and market share.

According to Autodata Corp., major automakers in the United States sold 1.26 million cars and trucks in February, roughly the same number they sold in February last year. Automakers called the sales levels healthy.

Paul Ballew, GM's top sales analyst, called the Consumer Reports rankings "their opinion." He said GM remains committed to having best-in-class quality. But he said part of the problem is lingering negative impressions about GM vehicles.

"It's a long-term challenge for us," Ballew said. "It requires us to do two things: Get our message out and then secondly continue to improve our operational performance, which is what we've been doing over the better part of a decade."

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