Carol Jones, a 50-year-old Arlington real estate agent, is shopping for a car that will make her feel younger. Mechanical reliability, vehicle safety and decent mileage top the list of her purchase concerns, but those are basic needs that any automaker should be able to meet. Jones wants a car that feels right, that's fun to drive.

"I like to drive, and what I really want is a car that feels tight when it's going around curves, and that looks good and has good seats," she said.

Jones used to buy American cars. Now she's shopping Japanese, and therein lies much of the explanation for why companies like Toyota and Honda are expanding in a U.S. auto market where their American and European rivals are losing ground.

The Japanese have become masters of what the industry calls "feel engineering" -- the ability to enhance consumer perceptions of vehicle quality by perfecting everything readily visible to the buyer, and everything that the buyer can immediately touch, smell and hear.

Done right, feel engineering yields doors that close with an authoritative "thonk" instead of a flimsy metallic "ting." It places minivan cup holders where they are most likely to be used in the vehicle's passenger cabin. It chooses interior plastics, fabric colors and dashboard design as much for emotional appeal and style as it does for their durability.

"It is the difference between shiny plastic and flat-finished plastic," said Francesca J. Giaimo, a 36-year-old assistant manager at the Kennedy Center who owns a 1985 Mazda RX-7. "If plastic is shiny, it screams at you that it's plastic and that it's cheap. The Japanese use a lot of flat-finished plastic, which looks more classy," Giaimo said.

All major automakers do feel engineering, a key element of which involves extensive and expensive market research -- the surveying of thousands of current and prospective customers on everything from the way they feel about exterior paint colors to what they think about the feel of buttons and levers used to operate a car's radio or heater.

For competitive reasons, the car manufacturers are hesitant to specify how much money they spend on feel engineering. But according to some auto industry analysts, as much as one-third of a $2 billion product-development budget might be dedicated to pursuing just the right ride, color, dashboard illumination, ventilation and passenger-cabin feel of a car.

The declining fortunes of many American and European car companies can be pinned in part to their reluctance to take the notion of feel engineering seriously, according to many auto industry officials, analysts, sales people and customers.

"General Motors will tell you that their customers aren't interested in that sort of thing -- flat-black plastic versus shiny-black plastic, or some richer feeling vinyl," said Ronald E. Harbour, with the auto consulting firm Harbour & Associates Inc. in Troy, Mich. "That's why the people who are interested in that kind of thing are not GM customers. They are Honda's customers, and Toyota's customers, and Mazda's and Mitsubishi's."

No need to persuade Giaimo of that.

She eventually dumped her Ford Fairmont, not so much because of its intermittent mechanical failures as for its flops in the feeling department: "Crushed velvet seats! Tacky, tacky, tacky. They reminded me of the kinds of sofas people used to have in apartments in my old neighborhood in New York. You know? The kind they always covered with clear plastic. Why are American car companies so tacky?"

A 'Reputational Lag'

The question rankles Joel Pitcoff, Ford Motor Co.'s in-house market analyst. It bespeaks a stereotypical view of American car companies that is contrary to the facts, Pitcoff said.

"People can be too generous in the way they heap praise on the Japanese auto industry," he said.

Pitcoff believes the whole idea of feel engineering is overrated. Feel engineering "is more a perception of car aficionados than it is of the general public," Pitcoff said. The general public is more concerned about a car's future trade-in value, durability and reliability, he said.

"In reality, we have narrowed the gap in product quality with the Japanese to the point where the difference in quality is minuscule," said Pitcoff. "But we have a reputational lag, which is bound to be. You can't change history. If a guy owns a three- or-four-year-old car that's a lemon, he's going to remember that."

Christopher Cedergren, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif., said that Pitcoff's comments miss the point.

Basic quality -- good durability and reliability -- "is the basic price of admission" for an automaker's presence in today's highly competitive auto market, Cedergren said. That means car companies must concentrate on product image, which means paying attention to detail.

Accordingly, fake wood grain that looks fake -- a trademark of many American cars -- cheapens a product's image. But good vinyl that looks like leather conveys a stronger sense of quality, Cedergren said.

U.S. automakers say that they put in fake wood grain because their buyers want fake wood grain.

"The perception that a Japanese-built car is a better car is misleading," said Terry Sullivan, GM's director of sales and financial reporting. "It's a question of customer base," what a manufacturer's customers want, he said.

"I don't think it's that the plastic in the Japanese cars is better than the plastic in ours," Sullivan said.

"We have communicated to our customers that we are making better, more attractive cars," he said.

Catching Up With Japan

Still, the Americans have a lot of catching up to do if they are to reverse their decades-long slide in the U.S. market.

As a group, American carmakers have seen their share of U.S. sales drop to about 62 percent today from 95 percent in 1955. Japanese automakers, which barely existed in the U.S. auto market in the 1950s, now hold a 30 percent share. Perhaps even more telling, in the currently sluggish U.S. auto market, Japanese car companies have increased their sales 4 percent over last year's levels, compared with an 11 percent drop for American automakers and a 5 percent decline for the Europeans.

Some Japanese companies, notably Subaru, lost sales. But as a group, the Japanese are successful "because they are doing the basic task of designing a car a lot better and faster" than the Americans and Europeans, said James P. Womack, research director of the International Motor Vehicle Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A key element of Womack's research, published last week in a report called, "The Machine that Changed the World," was the determination that Japan uses "lean production systems" in its auto and other major manufacturing industries.

Simply put, lean production allows a manufacturer to turn out a variety of quality products quickly by eliminating 50 percent of the design and development steps used in mass-production programs.

As a result, automakers like Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. can act on market-research information faster than their competitors -- turning out completely new products quickly and making fast "touch" and "feel" changes on existing model lines, Womack said.

Jack Rowe, president of Precision Toyota Inc. in Tucson agrees.

"We are constantly being visited by Toyota factory representatives who are asking us about what the customers feel about our products," said Rowe. "But the beautiful thing is that they're serious. I've seen them change some things within 90 days after they found out about it," said Rowe, referring to some cosmetic changes, such as the type of levers used.

Several Washington area dealers who sell Japanese and domestic cars supported Rowe's assessment of dealing with Japanese automakers.

"I don't want to appear disloyal to my domestic manufacturers," said one Washington-area dealer who sells Nissan and a variety of other domestic and foreign nameplates. "But the truth is that they are not as responsive as the Japanese," he said.

Where to Put CDs?

That apparent lack of responsiveness has left some customers with factory-installed compact-disc players in 1990 Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupes that have no compartments for storing compact discs, another Washington-area dealer said.

"It's a little thing. But it's damned irritating to a customer who pays that kind of money for a car," the dealer said of the $30,000 auto.

One GM source said that the oversight in the Eldorado stemmed from a lack of coordination between the people who designed the car's sound system and those who outfitted its interior.

"The sound system was ready to go before a disc storage compartment was ready," the source said.

It is those kinds of seemingly innocuous missteps that most Japanese car companies are trying to avoid in their pursuit of larger pieces of the American market, said Kiyoshi Eguchi, general manager of DCA Advertising in New York, which markets for Mazda and a host of other Japanese companies.

Mazda calls feel engineering kansai, or total sensory experience, Eguchi said. Mazda officials said that the term is more than a slogan.

For example, when Mazda was redesigning its 929 sedan in the mid-1980s, the company spent much money and time trying to determine the right sound the car's doors should make when they closed, Eguchi said. Mazda wanted a "thonk," similar to the sound made by the substantially more expensive Mercedes-Benz 300 cars.

To get that sound, with a Mazda "identity," the company made numerous recordings of sounds made by different car doors, compared them with the Mercedes-Benz 300, and then tried to come up with a way to "out-thonk" the "thonk" of the Mercedes, Mazda officials said.

Chrysler Corp., the smallest of the three native American car companies, also has shown a willingness to make major investments in feel engineering. To hold on to its increasingly challenged lead in the minivan market, Chrysler surveyed its buyers to come up with what the company said was the most ideal way to locate cup holders in its 1991 minivans.

That research also gave Chrysler ideas for changing its minivan instrument panels -- for example, equipping them with switches that are "rounded and improved to provide a world-class, silky, satisfying feeling," the company said in a manual describing its new products.

Nissan Motor Co. pursued feel engineering to dizzying heights in its development of its 1990 Infiniti cars. For example, leather interiors for Infiniti Q45 cars were selected from the same breed of cattle to minimize deviations in the texture of the skins.

Nissan officials also spent several months with prospective Infiniti buyers in California to help determine what weight and shape of exterior door handles should be used on the cars. Not even the "new-car fragrance" of the flagship Infiniti Q45 sedan was left to chance, according to a report by Nissan equipment design engineer Nobuo Saegusa.

The result is a new-car smell that mixes sandalwood with rich leather, alternatively sensuous and spiritual, Nissan believes.

Philosophical Concerns

Why are the Japanese so obsessed with these matters?

"For the Japanese, it's a matter of philosophy," said Cedergren. "It's why the domestic car companies are not winning over the Japanese car buyer with domestic products. Domestic car quality is good; but in this light, it's not good enough."

Such comments are mixtures of jingoism and truth, said Nathaniel B. Thayer, director of Asian studies in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"All of this talk about 'feel engineering' and 'kansai' really does not mean much of anything, I think, except as a way for the Japanese to communicate with the American market," Thayer said.

The truth is that Japanese automakers are not competing with American car companies, because "they won that competition a long time ago," Thayer said.

"Fear is driving the Japanese attention to detail," said Thayer. "The Japanese have an ancient tradition of perfection of craftsmanship, but they are really afraid of one another."

In Japan, Thayer said, "customer loyalty lasts 10 minutes."

If you consistently make a good product, "Japanese consumers stick with you," he said. But if you make a bad one, he said, they'll be the first to leave you.