In 2010, Ford came within 9 points of tying with Honda in the industry-standard JD Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study. Both companies enjoyed a healthy 10 point lead above the industry average, at least. A year later, Ford was only one point behind its Japanese rival, and finally in 2012, Ford finally triumphed over formerly unassailable Honda, beating it by 7 points.
Yet in that same period, Ford’s sales climbed slowly behind Honda’s. The year Ford beat Honda, it sold 8.3 percent more vehicles than the year before; by contrast, Honda’s sales climbed 16.3 percent. A good swath of Honda’s mainstream lineup is in dire need of updating; yet, even the unloved Civic, lambasted by the media like a whipped mule, outsold the media-darling Focus last month by 21,883 to 14,400 cars, respectively. What’s going on?
Perception. Consumer perception is key, and the phony acronym “Fix Or Repair Daily” has become part of popular culture. The figures indicate that out of every 100 cars, Ford cars suffered about 124 drivetrain or reliability problems, and Honda cars had about 131. But while Honda has been consistent with their number of problems for the past few years, Ford has needed time to catch up—and as the company knows all too well, it’s quicker to catch up in the figures than it is to catch up in the minds of consumers.
Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln and Hyundai are among the vehicles that have spent the last 3 years with an enviable position above Honda in reliability rankings, yet the 1985 Hyundai Excel still leaves a bad taste in the minds of those who survived driving one. Similarly, the Focus was rife with problems when the nameplate was first introduced a decade—in its first two years on sale in America, it set a record for the number of recalls. And you know what they say about second chances for first impressions.
The new Focus is miles ahead of that aging European model. But the Civic has had 40 years of an enviable reputation before it, and no matter how chinzy the dash plastics on the current model are, your grandmother is just as likely to buy one out of name alone as she isn’t likely to download Pandora to her MyFord Touch. Similarly, anybody who lived through the 70s and 80s can share with you at great length about overheating Fairmonts, rusty LTDs, and simply terrible Escorts that they somehow had to deal with.
Likewise, it will take time for Ford to catch up on perceived reliability to Honda. It’s admirable for Ford to have caught up and surpassed the Japanese juggernaut, but for it to do so in consumers’ minds will also take time.