Mulally’s Legacy?

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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I just picked up the latest Consumer Reports auto ratings publication–useful mainly for its reliability survey. Has “the American auto industry … come roaring back,” as Pres. Obama says with some regularity? Chastened UAW workers worrying less about work rules and more about quality! GM and Chrysler, freed from legacy burdens, able to spend more on engineering and high-grade materials!

Um, not so much, according to CR. I counted only 3 Detroit-made cars with above average quality ratings (the Chevy Volt, the Chevy Equinox, and the Jeep Patriot). Meanwhile 21 products are below average. Toyota, by way of contrast, has 18 cars above average (out of 21 it sells) and none below average. Many highly-rated Toyota products, like the Camry and Venza, are assembled in the U.S..

But that’s not news. Detroit is always catching up with the Japanese but never catching up. What struck me in the rankings was Ford’s showing. Specifically, Ford has zero cars with above-average reliability, and 7 cars with subpar rankings, including some mainstream products like the Edge crossover, Focus compact, and Lincoln MKT. Yes, the main quality culprits seem to be the hated MyFord Touch entertainment system and Ford’s bleeding edge dual-clutch transmissions. That’s not trivial. But there are other weak spots–the Explorer’s “body integrity”, the F-250’s  fuel system, the Lincoln MKS’s brakes. In 2011, Ford’s VP for quality defended its declining ratings by saying the company was fixing the problems: “Our internal surveys now show that we are largely back on track.”  Apparently not.

Remember that for years, if not decades, Ford products were a distinct cut above GM and Chrysler offerings when it came to reliability. They were about halfway between those Detroit laggards and the Japanese. No more–Ford now seems no better than GM. (Chrysler remains at the bottom.)**

Why is Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO since 2006, a management superstar again? There are a number of possible causes of Ford’s quality troubles, but one is surely its decision under Mulally to abandon reliable Mazda-designed chassis for in-house designs like those underpinning the new Focus and Fusion. (The Fusion was too new to rate in the CR survey.) There are also reports–see this comment and others around it– that the company’s entire “product development process needs fixing.” MyFord Touch, for example, obviously pushes out a technology that’s not ready for market.

Mulally’s rumored to be a top candidate to lead Microsoft. Given the latter’s tradition of selling software with fancy new features beset by aggravating glitches, he seems a perfect fit.


**–Cars are getting more reliable. “Average” today is much better than “average” 20 years ago. That said, I would not buy a car with a below-average rating from CR.