Of all the nasty things said about the Big Three during the bailout debates, the most baffling is that Detroit doesn’t make what the public wants.
I agree that the Big Three has out-of-touch management, too many union work rules and legacy costs Honda and Toyota don’t have, yet. But, my family owns five General Motors cars whose fleet miles total 657,826. The cars are: 1996 Saturn, 1999 Saturn, 2000 Pontiac Montana; 2004 Pontiac Montana and a 2006 Chevy Impala. Here is the list of major repairs: one alternator, one air conditioner compressor and one axle replaced on the 1996 Saturn and a pinhole in the air-conditioning line and the intake manifold gaskets replaced on the 2000 Montana.
The costliest repair was the gasket--$400.
No front end work. No blown transmissions. No starters that don’t start. No leaky heater coils or plugged radiators.
To be sure there have been minor irritants. The digital light on the radio doesn’t work on the 2000 Montana and I’ve replaced both motors for the electric windows. The driver-side seat belt doesn’t retract like it should. The door seals on the 1999 Saturn leak and it burns oil. And, I had to replace the radio on the 99 Saturn, but it was under warranty.
I’m sure there are other irritants I no longer remember, but I’ll stack the dependability of these GM cars up against similarly priced foreign cars. As I see it from my personal point of view, perception, not problems, is the problem.
When the first Japanese invasion of quality small cars hit American shores in the 1970s, the Big Three responded with the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Vega and the AMC Gremlin. Within a few years the battle was lost. The country once known for cheap trinkets had developed the reputation for producing the best compacts and the country once known for mass-producing quality automobiles developed the notorious reputation of making cars that blew up, rusted out and were just plain ugly.
Once The Big Three earned this reputation, it became nearly impossible to change. Even after years of producing cars of comparable quality to their foreign counterparts. Here’s just one survey to prove the point. J.D. Power and Associates does annual dependability studies for the auto industry. In 2004, it collected vehicle satisfaction information from 48,000 owners of cars and light trucks and ranked them by number of problems per 100 vehicles made. As expected Toyota ranked first with 2.07 problems per vehicle while GM ranked fourth with 2.62 problems.
That’s a half problem more per vehicle. Big whoop.
Dependability was only one factor we looked at when choosing our first Montana. We compared it to Honda and Toyota vans. While the Montana got less gas mileage, it had more cargo room, more leg room for passengers, traction control and it was cheaper. Detroit made the car we wanted to buy.
When I bought the first Saturn, I compared it to the Toyota and Honda. It ranked a little below in most features I was looking for, but it was cheaper and I wanted to support GM’s grand experiment--Saturn was to be an auto company in which production workers and the union had more input and power. By 1990, GM had learned, as one of its spokesmen told me in 2002, that if you build a crappy small product, consumers will think your big cars are crappy too. Saturn was supposed to change that perception
Saturn proved to be a dependable basic small car, but the corporate belief that consumer loyalty would carry over to GM’s larger cars never materialized. GM had taken great pains to set Saturn apart as its own entity and, unfortunately, that’s how consumers saw the company. Brand loyalty didn’t transfer to GM when Saturn owners went looking for larger cars.
My family’s track record with GM will give the company the edge the next time I shop for a car. It already has for one of my sons who traded in his 2000 Chevy Impala for the 2006 Impala.
I’m sure many of you can tell similar stories about the brand which has earned your loyalty. There’s not much difference between 2.07 and 2.62 problems per car. One mechanic I know said as much. The difference he’s seen in more than 30 years diagnosing mechanical problems is that those who follow the maintenance schedule have the least problems and those who don’t have the most.