The comeback of the American car

@PeterDrives January 5, 2012: 11:24 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- As the 2012 Detroit Auto Show approaches, the American auto industry looks to be stronger than it has in many years.

Massive restructurings, helped by government-run bankruptcies, helped GM and Chrysler improve their balance sheets, but product turnarounds at all three domestic automakers have been in the making for far longer and are now bearing fruit.

American cars have improved to the point that drivers can no longer simply assume that a similarly priced Toyota (TM) or Volkswagen (VLKAF) vehicle will be better.

But, since CNNMoney's last report on Detroit's quality comeback, some surprising trends have emerged. Ford, long the industry leader in quality, has stumbled while Chrysler, which has lagged the industry even longer, is coming on strong. (Detroit carmakers are (finally!) making profits)

Chrysler's climb

"Chrysler's had a fairly meteoric rise," said David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports, of the carmaker's improvement in dependability surveys. But it's been true in other ways, as well. In 2011, Chrysler's retail sales were up 45% compared to 2010.

Consumer Reports' car testers have called the new Chrysler 300 "the best Chrysler in decades." The magazine now ranks it among the best large sedans sold in America.

The new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs have been similarly lauded with Consumer Reports reliability survey showing the Durango to be the best large SUV.

"There's greater attention to detail, product quality, a more refined vehicle, overall," said Champion.

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Customers like Chrysler Group products better, too. In the most recent J.D. Power APEAL survey, which rates how much new car owners like their vehicles, the Dodge Charger, Challenger and Durango all topped their respective segments.

Doug Betts, the executive in charge of improving the quality of Chrysler Group products, expects the gains to continue.

"We're doing the kind of things that are the things you do when you end up at the top spot [for quality]," Betts said. "It doesn't seem unlikely now."

Champion is less certain. He's seen carmakers improve, then lose their focus, before.

"For Chrysler to succeed, they have to keep that quality," he said.

Ford's failings

Both J.D. Power's most recent Initial Quality survey and Consumer Reports latest dependability survey showed Ford (F, Fortune 500) falling hard. In Consumer Reports' rankings, the Ford brand tumbled from 10th place to 20th.

But the experts aren't terribly concerned about Ford's recent tumble. Ford has, in the past, shown a disciplined approach to quality. This time, the problems center around two well-known issues.

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"If they can put those things right, I think we'll see Ford come back up again," said Champion.

Many of the complaints dogging Ford have centered around a new so-called "dual-clutch" transmission in the Focus and Fiesta small cars. Before the Consumer Reports survey was released, Ford had already sent instructions to dealers on how to fix some of the problems.

Another hang-up for Ford has been the MyFord Sync entertainment and navigation interface. The system has proven baffling to many users but, even worse, it has shown a tendency to freeze up and crash.

Ford will soon begin distributing software updates that should help.

But finding an overall solution to the baffled users problem may be harder. Ford is asking dealers to spend more time teaching customers to use the system, although ultimately an automaker's interface has to be intuitive enough for users to catch on without hand-holding.

GM's gyrations

At General Motors (GM, Fortune 500), the cars look, drive and feel better than ever. But GM's cars -- Chevrolets, Buicks, GMCs and Cadillacs -- still suffer from problems at a relatively high rate, according to a recent owner survey by Consumer Reports.

The popular Chevrolet Cruze compact car, for instance, was ranked as the least dependable car in its class, as was the Chevrolet Malibu and the all-wheel-drive Buick LaCrosse. No GM models ranked best-in-class for dependability.

GM's quality, said Champion, has been a hit-or-miss affair with some models doing pretty well and others not at all. In fact, some models that do well one year are buggy the next and vice-versa.

GM's aware of the problem and is working to fix it, said Terry Woychowski, who was recently appointed GM's head of vehicle quality.

GM now has every part that's pulled from a car during a warranty repair sent to a special room at the carmaker's Michigan testing center where it's scrutinized to figure out what went wrong and why.

"You have to look at that mistake and try not to have it again," he said.

The system seems to be working, he said, citing the troublesome Cruze as an example.

"Since launching the Cruze, there's been a 25% reduction in warranty claims already," he said.

The system is now being replicated at GM facilities in Asia, South America and Europe.

One of the biggest drivers of quality improvements at Detroit automakers will be the introductions of completely new products, said David Sargent at market research firm J.D. Power and Assoc.

A common misconception is that quality is the job of workers on the factory line, he said. Good cars are ones that were designed with an emphasis on quality and dependability from the start. That includes designing them so the parts go together correctly on the assembly line every time.

"Who is building the car is one of the least important factors," he said.

As Ford, Chrysler and GM focus more on quality during the design and engineering phase -- and as older, less-reliable models get phased out -- things should continue to get better, he said.

What's your favorite car you ever owned? Upload your pictures and stories to iReport by Sunday, January 22, and you may appear in an upcoming CNNMoney feature. To top of page

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