Like the proverbial cloud the size of a hand above the ocean on a clear day that forebodes a tempest, the latest Consumer Reports on car brands has brought news that should send shivers down the spines of Japanese carmakers.
Ford has almost pulled even with Toyota in the eyes of the American consumer, garnering 141 points to Toyota’s 147 points. Statistically, the difference between these numbers is insignificant. They are effectively in a dead heat. This was unimaginable two years ago and spells big trouble for Japanese manufacturers. Toyota has dropped 45 points while Ford has risen 35 points.
“It’s pretty clear we disappointed our customers and potential ones,” says Paul Nolasco, Toyota Motor Corp. spokesman. “It takes a while to rebuild. Getting new customers is the challenge.”
Last year the company recalled five million vehicles with accelerator pedals that could become trapped under the floor mat, and in 2005 they recalled vehicles with steering relay rods that risked cracking or breaking. Toyota waited a year before recalling the vehicles with possible relay rod defects in Japan and acknowledging that all models in the United States were also affected.
“The playing field is more competitive for quality, and our competitors have become more skilled than in the past,” Nolasco says. “We can’t afford to fall back. We want to move forward. We not only want to be a company whose products are the ones consumers choose, but we want to be a company that can make its customers happy they chose our products.”
Consumers were asked to rate their perception of cars according to seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, design/style, technology/innovation, and environmentally friendly/green. As Consumer Reports is quick to point out, this doesn’t reflect the actual quality of the brands surveyed, but it is a useful weathervane to judge how American consumers perceived automobile brands, and how this perception is changing.
Chevrolet, for example, still ranks beneath Honda, and Cadillac barely nudges out Subaru. But Honda has slid 28 points in brand perception since 2008 while Ford and some GM cars (but not all) continue to jump in the surveys. Ford is up 35 points during the past two years and GM has climbed surprisingly too.
Japanese automobile makers have based much of their strategy for worldwide production on total domination of the Japanese market with no appreciable foreign competition, while also holding major portions of the American automobile market. Just a year or two ago Toyota was poised to become the largest selling brand in the U.S.
However, the real bad news for Japanese carmakers is with the smaller brands. Their strategy has been to mimic the larger brands, because they find themselves increasingly squeezed in Japan, and are looking overseas for sales. With Korean competition in the American market and the resurgence of American automobile manufacturers, smaller brands, such as Subaru, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, and Isuzu, will find their toehold in the U.S. market becoming increasingly precarious.
With more automobile manufacturers concentrated in one single nation than any other country in the world, and with their many competitors worldwide learning to mimic Japanese capabilities, quality and price, the road ahead for Japanese car makers is looking more and more like an increasingly bumpy ride.
Consumer Reports 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey http://autos.yahoo.com/articles/autos_content_landing_pages/1652/ford-leads-in-the-factors-that-matter-most-to-car-shoppers/