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Ford's challenge: Long-term reliability

Initial quality is good, but then come the repairs

Richard Truett is a staff reporter for Automotive News.
It seems like a lifetime ago. But for the first 12 of my 20 years as an automotive journalist, I handed out consumer advice daily as the auto writer for The Orlando Sentinel in Florida.

Thousands of times between 9 a.m. Aug. 16, 1989, and 5 p.m. Jan. 2, 2001, I was blasted by angry consumers who had bought something from General Motors, Ford Motor Co. or Chrysler. It usually happened after I had written a positive review of a Detroit 3 vehicle.

I would always tell a surly caller or e-mailer something like: “You should give the Big 3 another chance. They aren't making Oldsmobile diesels, Ford Tempos and Chrysler K cars anymore. The technology is all new. It's much better.”

Now I am in the position of having to take my own advice, and I don't think I am going to do it.

Here's why: I bought a new Ford Mustang in December 2004, one of the first of the current Mustangs built at the Ford-Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Mich. I'm a sucker for a good-looking car, and I get nostalgic over cars I used to own. The 2005 Mustang was a perfect blend of a 1966 Mustang fastback and a 1967 Mustang GTA that I owned and restored in the 1980s. So, when I saw the new Mustang, I had to have one.

Sadly, though, it hasn't been a very good car — not for me and certainly not for Ford. Because of frequent and expensive warranty claims, Ford probably hasn't made a nickel on the car.

Staff Reporter Richard Truett loves the looks of his 2005 Ford Mustang, but he doesn't like the way it was built.

Shoddy fix

After just 30,100 miles, my Mustang is on its third power-steering rack. The first two succumbed to leaks. My car has been in the shop three times for an exhaust system rattle in the catalytic converter area that the dealer can't or won't fix properly and permanently. (In one shoddy attempt, the dealer installed radiator hose clamps in an effort to put tension on the converter to keep it from rattling.) The transmission sometimes doesn't downshift properly. The rear seat belt broke.

I could live with all that stuff.

But two weeks ago, the paint started peeling off the hood. And now I am soured on Ford products, despite the fact that here in Detroit I can clearly see how well Alan Mulally, Mark Fields, Joe Hinrichs, Derrick Kuzak, Jim Farley and others are turning Ford around.

Sorry, guys, but you likely won't get any more of my money — not for a long time. I like the new Ford Fiesta, Flex and Escape Hybrid. They look great. Your initial quality scores on the Edge and Fusion are impressive. But most cars look like they'll last when they're new.

The real test of quality — and one Ford is failing by my experience — is long-term reliability. So, like most other consumers, before I buy another new Ford, I am going to have to see proof that your vehicles hold together long after they are paid off, just like Hondas and Toyotas.

This Mustang has taught me that it's much easier to tell people how to spend their money than it is to step up and spend your own. It also has clarified for me why consumers tolerate sense-dulling Toyotas and Hondas. Those cars, though not perfect, usually don't break. And the resale value is almost always higher than on a domestic when it is time to trade.

Luckily for me, all the Mustang's mechanical failures occurred while the car was still under warranty. And Ford did step up and pay two-thirds of the cost to repaint the hood, even though the warranty didn't cover it. But the next time the car breaks, it's my dime.

Liked the retro PT

When I landed in Detroit in January 2001, I came from sunny Florida in a black 1995 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible. The rough roads in Detroit were beating that car to smithereens, so I traded it in for a new Chrysler PT Cruiser because I liked the retro looks and the excellent interior.

Then a funny thing happened: Too many senior citizens started buying the PT, and that was not an image I was interested in, even though it was a great vehicle that never went back to the dealership except for oil changes.

The Cruiser gave way to a 2003 Mini Cooper, which let me buy a new British car for the first time after having owned dozens of used British sports cars. The Cooper also never needed anything except regular maintenance.

Everything was fine until the new Mustang came along. My 1966 Mustang fastback was the first car I ever loved, and so there was no question that I would own the new model.

So, I traded the Mini and got the new Mustang. I even paid it off two years early. I was counting on it to keep me off the car-payment bandwagon for at least six years. Now I find I can no longer trust the Mustang enough to think it won't need some major, wallet-draining repair sometime in the next three years.

Lately, I've been looking at new cars and testing a few. Several of the new GM vehicles, such as the Saturn Aura and Astra and Chevrolet Malibu, are nothing short of excellent. I realized the other day I am over my angst at GM for killing Oldsmobile, a brand that was near and dear to my family. So maybe it's time to give GM another try — if I can make that leap of faith.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com



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