U.S. carmakers can reclaim buyers' loyalty

The problem for U.S. automakers started in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Americans have a bias against cars made by U.S. automakers, but an AP-AOL Autos poll found flickers of loyalty that could offer hope for an industry struggling to survive.
The problem for Detroit is changing perceptions that often don't match reality.
Those questioned in the survey said they have more faith in Japanese-made cars than in vehicles produced by Detroit's Big Three. But General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group are going back to the future in their uphill effort to again inspire consumer loyalty and regain market share.
What is the American auto industry doing to reclaim its evaporating support?
The industry is returning to the types of autos that gave it a sense of "swagger and attitude in the 1960s," said John Wolkonowicz, an auto industry analyst. Many of those cars will be on display in Detroit over the next two weeks during the North American International Auto Show.
And the mood of U.S. auto industry leaders?
"They're tearing their hair out," said Wolkonowicz, who works at Global Insight, an economic research and consulting company. "It's more of a problem of perception than reality. The problem started in the late 1960s and early 1970s."
How this began
Back then, a teenager's first set of wheels probably was something like a 10-year-old American-made car, with all the attendant problems. The replacement might have been a new Japanese compact, a more reliable performer with better gas mileage.
As the Japanese began offering luxury models, that brand loyalty grew stronger. Also, European-made cars became more popular as consumers looked to drive something distinct from their parents' vehicles.
In the poll, 44 percent said Japan makes the best autos, 29 percent said the United States and 15 percent said Germany. Asked what car manufacturer makes the best autos, 25 percent said Toyota, 21 percent said General Motors and 17 percent said Honda.
Reasons for encouragement
Though the public perceives that Japan makes the best cars, several poll findings could offer encouragement for U.S. automakers.
Only 17 percent of current or potential car owners in the poll say they prefer to buy foreign cars. Also, 39 percent said they prefer to buy American cars, and 44 percent said it makes no difference.
Support for buying American cars increases with age, but six in 10 of those 30 or younger said they were open to buying foreign cars or American cars. That suggests they may be receptive to efforts of American automakers to win them over.
Eighty-five percent of foreign car owners said they were very satisfied with their cars, while eight in 10 owners of American cars were very satisfied.
Auto industry analysts say many people have the perception that cars made overseas are built better than American cars. But the performance of American-made cars is now actually very close to those made in Japan and higher than many cars made in Europe, they said. Foreign cars do have an advantage in resale value, however.

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