Consumer Reports says the most reliable four-cylinder family sedan - other than the gasoline-electric Toyota Prius hybrid -isn't the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, but Ford's Fusion, which received a major makeover for the 2010 model year.
"It's rare for Consumer Reports to see family sedans from domestic car makers continue to beat the reliability scores of such highly regarded Japanese models as the Camry and Accord," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Automotive Test Center.
In releasing the results of CR's 2009 Annual Reliability Survey, Champion said the last domestic sedan that had better reliability than the Camry and Accord was the Buick Regal in 2004. General Motors no longer even produces the Regal.
Champion said CR's research confirms that Ford can now claim world-class reliability, something the other two Detroit auto makers cannot do. About 90 per cent -46 of 51 models - of Ford, Mercury and Lincoln products were found to have average or better reliability. (Mercury products are not sold in Canada).
In CR's latest study, even the upscale Lincoln MKZ topped its rivals, the Acura TL and Lexus ES.
For nearly two years, Ford officials have said they will not launch new models if there is any question about quality. Bennie Fowler, Ford's vice-president for quality, says that during launches he worries constantly, sleeping "with one eye open, the other closed."
If so, he's not been getting much sleep. Since 2008, Ford has launched critical new models such as the Ford Fusion sedan, Lincoln MKS sedan, Ford Flex crossover, Ford F-150 pickup, Lincoln MKZ sedan and MKT crossover, Ford Mustang coupe, Ford Transit Connect van and Ford Taurus sedan. Among next year's critical launches will be the the 2011 Fiesta subcompact.
To get quality right, Fowler and other Ford executives rely on a combination of renewed discipline, new digital planning tools and weekly reviews with CEO Alan Mulally.
A key change: Ford has reduced manufacturing feasibility issues -- the discovery during prototype builds that the vehicle can't be manufactured as designed -- by up to 90 per cent.
Digital, or virtual tools, are now used throughout the entire vehicle-planning process. For instance, the tools helped Ford catch a problem early on in the 2009 F-150 development. The assembly simulation revealed that the truck's transmission would bump into its steering gear during installation.
As a result, Ford changed the assembly order to put the transmission in ahead of the steering gear. In the past, that problem may not have been discovered until physical pilot builds and even then a quick fix might have offered only a temporary solution.
Grinding out such details is essential in the car business, but it's not as exciting or tantalizing as creating alliances, buying companies and offering bold promises of a high-technology future. In Ford's case, says Champion, the company now has a track record of sustained quality.
The results of the latest CR study can be found in December's annual auto issue to hit newsstands Nov. 3. The findings are based on responses on more than 1.4 million vehicles owned or leased by subscribers to Consumer Reports or its Web site, http://www.ConsumerReports.org.
The survey was conducted in the spring of 2009 by Consumer Reports' National Survey Research Center and covered model years 2000 to 2009.
In Ford's case, such models as the Flex crossover did well, but there is still work to be done at the upscale Lincoln division - where some models scored below their Ford equivalents.
All-wheel-drive versions of the Lincoln MKS, MKX, and MKZ - essentially high-end versions of the Ford Taurus, Edge and Fusion - all ranked below average.
As for other auto makers, of the 48 models with top reliability scores, 36 are Asian. Toyota accounts for 18; Honda, eight; Nissan, four; and Hyundai/Kia and Subaru, three each.
Japanese vehicles were ranked highly, for the most part. All Honda and Acura products have average or above-average reliability. At Toyota/Lexus, only the Lexus GS AWD ranked below-average for reliability.
Among the Koreans, the Hyundai Elantra and Tucson and the Kia Sportage got top marks. The new Hyundai Genesis V-6 is ranked better than average; the V-8 version is ranked average. Kia's Sedona minivan and Sorento SUV scored below average.
For the Europeans, CR says Mercedes-Benz has fixed many troubling issues and now most models are ranked average or better. The GLK did exceptionally well in its first year in CR's survey.
At BMW, the 535i sedan and X3 SUV declined in reliability, and the 135i scored below average. Some BMW models have average or better reliability, but the 328i model is the only one tested and recommended by CR.
At Volkswagen and Audi, the VW Rabbit (Golf) and the VW Passat CC earned top scores. The VW Jetta is the only diesel recommended by CR. At the other end of the spectrum, the Audi Q7 SUV is ranked much worse than average. Meanwhile, the VW Touareg has the worst new-car predicted reliability score in the survey.
All of Volvo's sedans are ranked average or better, while only the Porsche Boxster is ranked below average from that sports car maker.
As for the Detroit auto makers other than Ford, 20 of the 48 GM models Consumer Reports surveyed earned average reliability scores, while the Chevrolet Malibu V-6 has shown better-than-average scores and is on par with the most reliable family sedans. The Buick Lucerne did well in Consumer Reports road tests, and it scored average in reliability.
Chrysler remains a problem. More than one-third of Chrysler products are ranked much worse than average, including its new car-based SUV, the Dodge Journey. Consumer Reports does recommend the redesigned Dodge Ram 1500 pickup after ii scored well in road tests and reliability.