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U.S. Automakers Aim To Eliminate Lemons


Well, from a classic American company to a classic industry. It turns out automobiles are improving, so much so in fact, that the U.S. seems to be entering a golden age of vehicle quality and reliability.

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton has this story about the demise of the lemon.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please step into the door.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: But before you step into the door, you slip blue booties over your shoes. This lab inside the Jefferson North Assembly Plant has to be kept pristine. Inside, everything is perfect. Literally perfect.

LINDA CASTANEDA: This is a perfect body.

SAMILTON: Meaning the basic metal frame of a Dodge Durango.

Linda Castaneda, who oversees quality at the plant, says engineers use this perfect body to achieve...

CASTANEDA: Zero defects.

SAMILTON: Each part has to fit the frame like a precisely measured puzzle piece. And each car has to look flawless. You might not take your car back to the dealership for that.

CASTANEDA: But it shows if your door is straight or if the panels are lined up correctly.

SAMILTON: The pursuit of perfection extends to the assembly line. Union member and team leader Jerry Windham shows me a thin plastic tube that snakes under the rear seats on the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

JERRY WINDHAM: On second shift they were routing them backwards, so when we go to put the seats in, we were pinching the lines.

SAMILTON: Windham says that pinching caused some of the trucks' air compression units to fail.

WINDHAM: So by standardizing them and making sure that both shifts doing it one way, we eliminated the defect.

SAMILTON: Tom Shields has worked here 18 years. He's says he's always careful to tell colleagues why something should be done a certain way.

TOM SHIELDS: They understand that if this isn't locked, that car will fail that test, it won't be shipped, it'll have to be repaired, it can come back in a warranty claim.

SAMILTON: The trucks built in this Detroit factory are getting high marks from outside rating groups. But a similar turnaround is happening pretty much everywhere, with just about every car company. Quality, once largely the domain of Toyota and Honda, is now simply the price of entry.

Jesse Toprak is an analyst with

JESSE TOPRAK: So you go to any dealership today, buy any new car in the U.S. dealerships, you're not going to get a clunker that's going to fall apart on you.

SAMILTON: Toprak says quality has been rising for at least 20 years, and the gap between the best and worst is shrinking.

That's true for newer cars, according to David Champion of Consumer Reports. But he says you can find lots of problems in some older cars. The best model might have 20 problems per 100 cars at age five; the worst, 113 per 100.

DAVID CHAMPION: So that basically means, every car had at least one problem.

SAMILTON: And that's going to make every single person not so happy about their car.

CHAMPION: Correct.


CHAMPION: Because they're actually going to be paying for the repair at that point in time.

SAMILTON: The long-term reliability gap between top and bottom isn't shrinking as fast as the one for initial quality, but Ron Harbour thinks it will in the next few years. He's a factory efficiency expert at the consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

RON HARBOUR: You know, it used to be that you could walk into an assembly plant and at the end of the line you'd see hundreds - even in some cases - thousands of cars in repair that had to be fixed before they could be sent to dealerships.

SAMILTON: Now, you might see 10 or 20.

So these days, when an anxious customer asks Jesse Toprak what to buy, he gives them this advice.

TOPRAK: You know what? You probably cannot screw this one up that badly.

SAMILTON: That means, customers can focus more on finding what they like and less on worrying about quality and reliability.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.