Comparing American and Japanese Car Brands

WARNING: I work at a GM dealership. I have a bias. I have also focused on GM versus Toyota for the purposes of this discussion since they are the big two with respect to domestic and foreign car companies.

The General Motors vehicles in the 2007 line up easily match up with their Toyota counterparts, and in many areas we are now way ahead of the Japanese. It is absolutely mind blowing though to see how many different models GM has out now. The vast majority of customers that come through the door find themselves overwhelmed by the selection that they have to choose from. Perhaps having a large product line up is a good thing. After all, variety is what pulled GM ahead in the past over other domestic brands of the time.

The 160,000KM (100,000 mile) 5 year power train warranty is direct evidence that GM's product line quality has improved. We can thank the market for this. Consumers complained, the market whacked GM over the head with poor sales, and now GM has responded. That is how the market place is supposed to work.

The unfortunate part about all this is that the improvement in the GM product line will take years to be realized in the consumer world. (Consequently, this is why the consumer's opinion is often referred to as a lagging indicator).

The problem with GM is that it doesn't seem to play very nice with the media, at least not when compared with Toyota's cozy media relationship. Toyota has continued to gain significant ground over domestic vehicles thanks to aggressive advertising tactics that paint domestic brands as tired, old, and unreliable. North America is the perfect place for non-domestic-brand companies to do this because North Americans are far more critical of themselves than in any other place on the planet. Even though Toyota has been posting record recalls (with reports now of steering wheels coming off on highways), even though some of their vehicles (especially hybrids) will be loosing 25% fuel mileage due to the new EPA rating, and even though Toyota has been caught red-handed in the exaggeration of the horsepower of some of its vehicles, the negative perception towards domestic vehicles still persists and the reputation of Japanese companies has somehow been left magically unscathed. Mark my words, if GM put a sticker on the steering wheel of a new Montana SV6 that had a 0.00005% probability of reflecting sunlight into the eye of the driver there would be a massive safety recall and everyone on the planet would hear about it.

I have a very frightening example of just how far this perception warping goes. There is a vehicle in the GM line-up called the VIBE. Everyone who knows anything about the VIBE knows that it is essentially a Toyota Matrix. If you look at the interior of a VIBE and a Matrix, you will see that the vehicles are virtually identical. I have seen a VIBE get into an accident and I have seen GM body shop managers call Toyota to get parts for the VIBE-therefore one might say that minus a few styling details, the VIBE and the Matrix are the same vehicles made by Toyota. So now let's play the perception game:

A lady has a problem with her Vibe and says that the power steering feels stiff. She starts the Vibe in the morning and says that it is making a grinding noise when she tries to turn the steering wheel. Aforementioned lady brings in the car the following afternoon to get fixed. The mechanics look puzzled and surprised as they make various comments like: . Mechanics check over the vehicle and find nothing wrong-the steering problem has somehow spontaneously resolved itself... To make a long story short eventually the problem was eventually found a few days later[when the lady brought it back for the 3rd time]: a defective power steering pump. (and of course this was covered under warranty ;) ). But what was it that hampered this diagnosis the first two times around?

You see, there is this little phenomenon in scientific research that we call 'observers bias' and I would like to put forth the idea that the negative perception of domestic cars is so pervasive that even mechanics are being duped into thinking that foreign cars are of higher quality even when faced with evidence to the contrary. If you are looking to demonize a car company based on what you've heard from your peers you will find a reason to do so. If you 'know' before hand that there is nothing wrong with a car company, could it be possible that you will be less likely to find a problem even if there is one?

I'll say one thing, if a foreign car company can dupe the mechanics of a domestic car company into thinking that their products are superior (even in the face of evidence to the contrary), that is one hell of a feat. The thing that worries me is that this anti-media circus around GM and the corresponding mania around superior foreign car quality' could cause defects in other brands to go un-noticed and seriously compromise the safety of the consumer.

GM is the most transparent company in the world. If there is a problem, they do a recall and the entire world knows. While this blatant truthfulness may have killed their reputation in the eyes of its most important consumer base in North America, it has kept people alive.

My advice: I strongly urge all consumers looking to purchase a new vehicle to ignore the way they 'feel' about a car as this feeling is likely to have been seriously modified by the media and consumer perception. Please look at the facts, look at the number of recalls, compare the warranties (which can be done in a very empirical way), look at the quality of the plants that manufacture the parts (this can now be done with a few Google searches), and be on the lookout for consumer reports that are excessively impressionistic or lacking in detail.

--By: David Charles--

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