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Detroit's bad rap deserves rebuild

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A few months back, ol' Hoot McInerney used a radio interview to offer his take on what has long been ailing the Detroit that made him a legendary car dealer.

The American people, he said, forgave the Japanese for World War II and they forgave the Germans. But they haven't forgiven Detroit for making some bad cars and trucks. And, I would add, trying to fob them off on a gullible public that wasn't so gullible.

Provocative? Yes. Accurate? More than folks in this town would like to admit. That gulf of forgiveness, born of mostly rational economic decisions grounded in fact, reputation and a squishy thing called perception, is close to giving foreign-owned automakers a majority position in the U.S. market.

But it doesn't have to, as a J.D. Power study commissioned by The Detroit News suggests. Four of five respondents polled for The News said they would consider buying brands produced by GM, Ford and Chrysler, but only 49 percent said they were "most likely" to.

American advantage

By almost any independent measure, Detroit's products are vastly better than the bad old days that earned them the opprobrium of American consumers -- which is why the findings of The News' survey are, on balance, so encouraging.

Detroit's biggest untapped asset -- despite its record of lackluster products, lagging reputation for adopting new technology and rap for paying people not to work -- is that its cars and trucks are American, even if some who build them are Canadian or Mexican.

Americans may get knocked for being insular, arrogant and willfully ignorant of the globalizing world. But they're savvy consumers who are smart enough to know two things: First, how to find the best product for their money and, second, that supporting the home team is a good thing so long as doing so gets them the best product for their money.

Until recently, that hasn't often been the case.

As much as Detroit's head-in-the-sand crowd doesn't want to hear it, the legions of Americans who exchanged Detroit metal for Toyotas, Hondas and Kias didn't do it because the media told them to. They did it because the evidence told them to, especially those who don't crave big pickups and SUVs.

A reputation earned

For years, the Asians fielded a more fuel-efficient fleet. They offered double-overhead cam engines when companies like GM clung to pushrods. They delivered gas-electric hybrids when Detroit dissed them. They outperformed Detroit on independent quality surveys, delivered higher resale values and better long-term reliability.

That's not me saying it. It's J.D. Power. It's Consumer Reports. It's the Detroit automakers' own internal data, as myriad news stories have reported -- two of them in the last month.

Americans, the world's preeminent consumers, buy the cars and trucks that last, look good and meet their needs. The foreigners don't have the monopoly on those criteria now any more than Detroit did back in its long-dead heyday.

And that's a very good thing.

Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at (313) 222-2106, dchowes@detnews.com or http://info.detnews.com/danielhowesblog.

Detroit News Online Article Link
 

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