Domestic vs. Foreign: Is There a Difference in Quality?

When the first Hondas and Toyotas showed up in US dealerships during the oil crisis of the 70s, they were ridiculed for being tiny, and of dubious reliability. Over the next 10 years, though, the reliability of imports improved dramatically — both in reality and in perception. Meanwhile, American brands rarely kept up, and took a massive hit to their reputation. Today, the domestics have rallied back. Recent JD Power dependability studies show a Lincoln rated number one for reliability.

Yet, not many are impressed by the ranking obtained by Lincoln. People don’t simply expect the car to not break; they want it to not break while offering superior technology. Foreign cars have better reliability scores overall while offering more modern technology. As many auto experts tend to note, American cars tend to be a couple of model cycles behind equivalent Japanese cars As a result, they tend to hold their value far longer than domestics. The gap is closing, though. If you’re trying to buy a car, then, which way should you head — domestic or foreign?

Make up your mind about what you consider foreign

It’s important to understand that both foreign carmakers and the domestics often use the exact same parts. This should be clear enough in the recent wave of recalls involving large, single manufacturers supplying auto industry worldwide. Japanese airbag maker Takata, is now in trouble for its airbags in everything from Ferraris to Hondas, Toyotas and Chryslers.

Nevertheless, the quality of an automobile isn’t always down to the individual parts used. It is also about design ability and overall focus on quality. According to the New York Times report, for instance, both Toyota and Honda knew about faulty Takata airbags, but did nothing.

Basic philosophies

Over the years, a few details of leaked out about the way the different approaches that the domestics and foreign manufacturers bring to the car making process. In one example, anonymous workers pointed out how domestics had fewer quality checks, and used them farther apart in the manufacturing process than Japanese manufactures. In general, domestics also tend to be fanatical about never stopping the production line when a problem is apparent, whereas at least one Japanese manufacturer would do it at the first any sign of a problem.

Looking at the problem at another angle

Quality isn’t just about reliability. It can also be about efficiency. According to EP Werks, well known in Indianapolis for free auto estimates, when it comes to fuel efficiency standards, the domestic brands lag far behind the imports even today. In one report on The Truth About Cars foreign manufacturers such Hyundai, Volkswagen and Toyota are shown to have a huge lead in mileage over domestics by Ford, GM and Chrysler. Hyundai’s best is 27.6 mpg; Ford’s best is 22.1.

The car industry evolves quickly. At this point, across most model types and manufacturers, the foreign brands lead in quality and efficiency and resale value. You’ll probably find the things will change over the next five years, though.