Washington Post 06/17/07 by Warren Brown
The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved
Stories about the impending death of Ford Motor Co. have been greatly exaggerated. The Detroit automobile manufacturer, working to right itself after one of the steepest sales and image declines in its 104-year history, is alive and revving. Anyone doubting that is unaware of the positive news surrounding its birthday celebration this weekend.
Ford, founded June 16, 1903, is the nation's vehicle quality leader.
That's "leader" as in "ahead of the pack," as in ahead of Toyota, Nissan, General Motors, Honda, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz -- not exactly what anyone would expect from a "dying" company.
Specifically, Ford automobiles, including the Ford-sponsored Mazda MX-5 Miata, took five of the 19 "best-in-class" awards in the 2007 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. That is the most first-place finishes this year of any car company in the survey, which for the past 20 years has been one of the nation's most influential measurements of product and service quality and consumer satisfaction.
That is a big deal.
It means that, despite numerous hard knocks, most of them self-inflicted, Ford is rallying. It is fighting back. It's not rolling over. There is something wonderfully human about that, classically American, kind of a motorized version of "Rocky."
The survey is tough. It polls new-vehicle owners to measure new-vehicle quality after 90 days of ownership, a period when many consumers are vulnerable to "buyer's remorse" upon discovering something as small as a tiny bubble in an exterior paint job or as large as a faulty engine or transmission.
Consumers report problems in two major categories: quality of design, which speaks to matters such as interior ergonomics (gauges that are easy or difficult to read, for example); and quality of production, or how the vehicle is screwed together.
This year's poll featured a list of 228 questions asked of 97,000 purchasers and lessees of 2007-model-year cars and trucks. Ford's five "best-in-class" winners topped Toyota's placement of four vehicles in that category, and it beat General Motors and Mercedes-Benz, each of which had three vehicles that ranked at the top of their segments.
Winners were determined by the least number of problems reported per 100 vehicles. The industry average in the latest survey was 125 complaints per 100, one of the lowest complaint ratios since the survey began. J.D. Power officials say the current low average complaint score reflects large strides in product quality made by all car companies in the past two decades.
In using that measurement, Toyota -- which had been a perennial leader in the surveys in the past, before it began experiencing quality problems largely spawned by the company's rapid growth in global sales -- still retains some bragging rights for 2007.
Toyota's luxury Lexus brand finished second in overall quality rankings, with 94 complaints per 100 vehicles. It was topped by Porsche, with 90 per 100. But Ford's Lincoln division moved from 12th place last year to third place this year, with 100 complaints per 100 vehicles.
"We know we have a long way to go, but this shows that we are making improvements," said Bennie Fowler, Ford's vice president for vehicle quality. "We've been working hard on this for quite some time. . . . Our aim is to become the highest-quality vehicle manufacturer in the world," Fowler said. He wasn't being cheeky.
Over the years, it has become easy to laugh at Ford and its many problems -- easier still to predict that the company would flop and fold instead of rise. But such assessments come from people who misunderstand the resilience of the human spirit, who routinely give more credit to failure, especially to spectacular failure, than they are willing to invest in the belief that people, when properly motivated, have the ability to rise above disaster.
Anyone who has spent any serious time talking to the people of Ford knows that, though many of them have been certifiably depressed by the company's recent run of bad luck, most were in a fighting, determined-to-overcome mood They needed a leader, and they got that last year in a decisive, no-nonsense chief executive, Alan Mulally, who came to Ford after doing yeoman's work in getting Boeing's commercial aircraft division to fly straight.
Fowler said Ford intends to further improve its quality ratings with the coming introduction of its born-again Taurus and Sable cars. The company, well aware of the Toyota Camry's longtime dominance of the midsize family sedan segment in the United States, is working overtime to get the new Taurus and Sable right.
And in the weird logic of the automobile industry, Ford's proposed sale of its luxury Jaguar and Land Rover brands, which also scored well in the latest J.D. Power survey, could help in that endeavor.
In getting to be "best" in product quality and design, Mulally and his team have chosen to get smaller, even if that means Ford must live with a long-term third-place ranking in the world's lineup of vehicle manufacturers behind General Motors and Toyota, which now holds first-place in global sales.
Jaguar and Land Rover were diversions -- attempts to buy good reputations by buying prestigious companies that already had them. Mulally has thought better of that idea. He'd rather sell Jaguar and Land Rover and use the proceeds to build up Ford's reputation the old-fashioned way -- car by car, truck by truck.
Based on the latest J.D. Power survey results, his is a better idea. He and Ford could do what many of us had considered impossible. The company could beat all comers in product quality. And if it does that, it could be around for another 104 years.