Now, Troubles at Ford?

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Now, troubles at … Ford? Current political thinking about the auto industry understandably favors Ford. They didn’t go broke. They didn’t get bailed out. And, historically, they’ve built better cars–if you look at Consumer Reports’ historical data, Ford consistently achieved a higher level of reliability than GM or Chrysler, though not as high as the best Japanese makes. This is a happy picture for conservatives, who can point to Ford with satisfaction and argue that American enterprises will succeed if only they are (unlike old GM) competently managed, with success and failure properly incentivized by the market.

But now the picture is about to get more complicated, because Ford’s reliability scores are about to go down, according to more than one report. Truth About Cars has been warning of impending bad news for a while–“early data on the Ford Fiesta is not good,” wrote Michael Karesh of the TrueDelta reliability survey late last year. Now Karesh is out with a major critique. Ford’s scores on the well-publicized J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey due later this month are likely to decline, according to Automotive News. Ford PR–led by CEO Alan Mulally–is trying to get out ahead of the problem, blaming high-tech glitches in the MyFord Touch touchscreen system. But the problem is deeper than that, Karesh says:

 Things like the chrome finish flaking off the taillights on the Taurus and Fiestas that won’t start, whose fuel gauges don’t read correctly, or (in fewer but more serious cases) whose dual clutch automated manual transmissions fail. The Taurus problem is admittedly minor, but it nevertheless indicates a faulty product development process. Proper testing would have discovered that the finish would peel off the taillights in less than a year. Similarly, proper testing would have found that a poor ground would lead to no-starts in the Fiesta, and that the fuel gauges in the car were often failing to read correctly. If these common problems that appear early on were missed, what else has been missed?

These glitches aren’t entirely a new development. Earlier, the 2007 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX suffered from very common failures to the seals of their AWD units, often multiple times with the same car—and this problem persisted for at least three model years. The 2008 Taurus has commonly had problems with its front struts. And the revision to the Fusion for 2010 created transmission driveability problems where none had existed before—and which have proven hard to fix.

It’s hard for me to believe that many of Ford’s looming difficulties aren’t related to its divorce from Mazda. Several Ford’s current popular models started as Mazda designs–both the Ford Fusion and the Edge are based on Mazda 6 architecture, for example. Mazdas are generally reliable cars. But now Ford is selling small cars designed largely in Europe. Ford of Europe’s reliability reputation in the U.S. is, let’s say, mixed. (Remember the ill-fated Merkur XR4Ti?) Here’s Karesh again:

[T]he Fiesta has been the least reliable new Ford in some time, with multiple common problems (that have nothing to do with MyFord Touch). And as the first Ford of Europe car to be transplanted to North America under Mulally’s “One Ford” program it could presage problems with the 2012 Focus and upcoming Escape and Fusion replacements.

Karesh thinks the whole Ford “product development process needs fixing.”

Historically, the market swiftly punishes manufacturers that build unreliable cars (though there are occasional exceptions). Free enterprise bailout skeptics shouldn’t worry that this mechanism has broken down. And Ford is in such good shape you’d think a third Detroit bailout is highly unlikely.

But, just between you and me, I wouldn’t invest too much intellectual capital in the shining example of Ford’s success.

P.S.: Didn’t Boeing’s innovative 787 Dreamliner have troublesome quality problems when Mulally ran that company? Just sayin’.

Mickey Kaus