WAYNE, Mich. – Pick the more reliable car brand:

Buick or Mercedes? Chevy or Audi? Lincoln or Volvo? Ford or Volkswagen?

It’s the American maker in every case, according to the latest J.D. Power and Associates durability study, an industry benchmark.

The achievement reflects two trends that are largely hidden behind Detroit’s spate of bad financial news and fire-sale discounts: The reliability of American cars, trucks and SUVs is up, and the reliability of European imports, especially German ones, is down.

Consumer Reports, the influential nonprofit product-test magazine, sees the same trend. “Domestic manufacturers are now in second place behind the Japanese” when it comes to reliability, spokesman Doug Love said. “European manufacturers currently are in third.”

The magazine’s editors reported Wednesday that for the second straight year no European model had made its most-reliable list, which Japanese entries continue to dominate. Two American entries, the Chevy Monte Carlo and Mercury Mariner, made it. On the less demanding list of above-average reliability, U.S. makers had 11 new entries, compared with eight Asians and five Europeans. Findings are based on owners’ reported experiences with more than 1 million vehicles.

Because reputations lag years behind performance, U.S. automakers are seeing little sales lift for their efforts, said Dan Gorrell, the vice president of Strategic Vision, a San Diego automotive marketing and consulting firm. For consumers who are looking for affordable cars they can count on, however, the shift has created some bargains.

“Most of the domestics are better than people think,” said Jim Sanfilippo, the executive vice president of AMCI Inc. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., an independent evaluator of U.S. and foreign vehicle quality for the auto industry. “At the same time, some imports are not as good as people think.”

Terry Barclay, who owned two Lexuses before he leased a Ford 500, agreed. “It’s a Lexus on a budget,” crowed Barclay, a Detroiter without ties to the auto industry.

The bargains are greatest for buyers of used American cars, Sanfilippo and other analysts said. They recommend late models of the Ford Focus, Escort, Mustang and Crown Victoria, Buick Regal, Mercury Grand Marquis, Chevy Malibu, Ford F-Series trucks, GMC trucks and Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.

All were strong performers in the 2005 Power durability study, which tallied problems that new-car owners reported in the first three years.

Take the compact Ford Focus, today a favorite – especially if it’s equipped with optional head-protecting side airbags. Early versions in the 2000-2002 model years saw a staggering 14 recalls. There have been none on newer models, however, after a Japan-emulating quality revolution at Ford’s Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant, the sole Focus builder in the United States.

“We built junk for a little while,” conceded Bill Johnson, the United Auto Workers assembly plant chairman. He blamed a hasty and hapless adaptation of a European model that Ford made worse by training assembly-line workers poorly.

That ended when Wayne’s managers and UAW representatives began to work out a quality-oriented Japanese-style relationship between labor and management. “Partnership is the key word,” Kenneth Minielly, the Wayne plant’s manager, said in an interview. “We had to run the plant together because if we didn’t work together, we didn’t have a prayer of surviving.”

The collaboration, endorsed by the UAW’s Johnson, gave each Wayne assembly-line worker a button to stop the line if a quality concern arose. It also gave each work unit of a dozen or so people a UAW quality leader, who reports, investigates and resolves any quality problems with parts and assemblies that originate at his or her workstation or arrive from others.

That approach to automaking, stressing teamwork, mutual respect and continual improvement, originated with the American industrial visionary W. Edwards Deming, who sold postwar Japanese corporations on it.

“Unfortunately, it’s 50 years later that we’re taking it to heart,” said Joe Mansouri, Wayne’s quality manager.

The shared concern for quality helped Wayne find and solve some subtle problems, he said.

In one case, Mansouri was puzzled by owners’ reports of rattling Focus radio speakers, which he determined occurred mainly on cars made late in the day. It turned out that their installer, who was 6 feet 4, had backaches late in his shift due to the awkward position required to screw the speakers into car doors.

Resolution: A shallow trench in the plant’s floor brought the doors to a comfortable height.

In another case, Mansouri linked owners’ complaints of rattling batteries to battery housings whose fastener holes were drilled from the outside in. The resulting burr, line workers said, made the fasteners hard to install tightly.

Resolution: Drill the holes from the opposite direction.

Before the cooperative approach took hold, “the engineers wouldn’t have agreed to that,” the UAW’s Johnson said. “They would’ve told us to push it in harder.”

The net effect of these improvements – aside from confirming the ill wisdom of buying a car in a model’s first years – has been a sharp drop in warranty costs that stem from owners’ complaints.

Warranties cost Ford $20 million on the 2005 Focus, for example, compared with $160 million on the troubled 2000 model, according to Minielly.

Other domestic automakers are scoring the same effects from the quality-obsessed teamwork approach. For General Motors’ domestic fleet, the number of warranty claims is down 36 percent over the past five years, according to spokeswoman Janine Fruehan. Warranty costs are down 21 percent.

Volkswagen, whose Golf model had the same problem rate as the Focus in 2000, hasn’t kept pace when it comes to reliability improvements. Overall, Volkswagens as a brand had 45 percent more problems than Fords in their first three years on the road, according to Power’s 2005 durability survey, released in June.

Mercedes-Benz owners in that survey reported more problems than owners of Lincolns, Buicks, Cadillacs or any other U.S. brand but Jeep. The Mercedes problem rate was 283 per hundred cars vs. 151 for Lincoln, 163 for Buick and 175 for Cadillac. The Jeep rate was 289.

Brent Councill, 44, who owns a 2006 Mercedes E-350 4Matic, isn’t surprised.

“In my first 700 miles, the interior of my $60,000 car fogged up in the midst of a thunderstorm,” Councill, a Washington, D.C., Realtor, said recently. “The air conditioner just crapped out.”

He limped home from the failure, which occurred on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, only to be told by his dealer that receiving replacement parts from Germany would take a week. When Councill balked, the dealer cannibalized a showroom car for the parts.

“Now I’m waiting for the next thing to happen,” Councill said. “And that’s not what I expected, based on the advertising, the brochures, the showroom, the perceived value, the intellectual property that Mercedes has and the price of the car.”

Mercedes-Benz USA spokeswoman Donna Boland called the Power survey’s reliability findings “a wake-up call” to several problems. Among them: too much cutting-edge technology and electronics in new cars and too many new models, especially Mercedes’ first and troublesome U.S.-made SUV.

“This perfect storm caused us some problems,” she acknowledged. They’re being solved, she said, adding: “We’ve been selling in the U.S. since the “50s, and 74 percent of the cars we’ve sold in this market are still on the road.”

Consumer Reports spokesman Love rephrased that statement: “The older ones are superb. The newer ones have tended to have some issues with them.”

Industry analysts differ on why U.S. automakers get no credit for their improved wares while Mercedes sales continue to be hot.

According to Gorrell, “There’s a tremendous reservoir of good feeling left toward Mercedes and it will take a long time for that to be undone. They have a window of opportunity to get their act together.”

Conversely, “consistent reliability remains an issue for U.S. automakers,” said David Champion, the senior director of the auto test department for Consumer Reports. “Some years the quality’s quite good, but the next year it’s down.”

At the same time, he added, reliability is a much smaller issue for buyers than it was a generation ago, thanks to quality-improvement pressure from Asian automakers. Proof: In 1980, owners of 88 out of 100 new vehicles, domestic and foreign, told Consumer Reports that they’d had problems the first year. Today, the number is 16 out of 100.

As a result, reliability is presumed in new cars rather than shopped for, according to Wes Brown, an analyst with Iceology, a Los Angeles automotive marketing firm.

“People say reliability is important, but reliability’s an expectation that’s very likely to be met these days,” Brown said.

Annette Clayton, GM’s vice president for quality in North America, agreed. GM and other U.S. makers, she added, figure that cars must be reliable to exist in the current market. Now they’re working hard to improve “perceptual quality,” the soundproofing, ride and “thunk” of the doors that symbolize quality to customers but may have nothing to do with durability.

To review J.D. Power and Associates’ 2005 reports on car dependability and initial quality, go to www.jdpower.com and click on “Corporate Site.” They’re listed under “Top Stories.” To make head-to-head comparisons of various models, click on “J.D. Power Consumer Center,” then “Autos.”

To review Consumer Reports rankings and recommendations of vehicles, go to www.consumerreports.org and click on “Cars.”

For a vehicle-by-vehicle summary of safety issues, go to the Center for Auto Safety at www.autosafety.org. Click on “auto defects” at the top of the page.

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