You can depend on Detroit

Quick, which car brand do you suppose buyers report as being the most dependable after three years of ownership?

If you said Lexus, Toyota or Honda, your perceptions are pretty much in line with those of most American consumers, whose love affair with Asian cars is growing even as Detroit's once-mighty Big Three fight for survival. But you'd also be wrong.

Tied for first place on J.D. Power's annual survey of vehicle dependability, released last week, were Jaguar and Buick — two brands whose reputations haven't yet caught up with their improvements in quality. As General Motors and Chrysler try to convince Washington that they're worthy of another $22 billion in taxpayer-funded loans, their biggest challenge may not be demonstrating that they can make better cars, but that they can convince buyers that their tarnished brands are worth another look.

March 31 is the deadline for the two companies to prove their viability to the federal government, which already has shelled out $13.4 billion to GM and $4 billion to Chrysler; both companies say they need even bigger infusions of cash to avoid bankruptcy.

The reputation of American-built cars has been declining for years, and for good reasons. Because of labor costs that far exceeded those of foreign competitors and some poor strategic decisions, U.S. automakers scrimped on materials and engineering for passenger cars. The results are apparent in J.D. Power and Associates surveys; in 2008, 63 percent of U.S. car shoppers said they considered buying an Asian brand, up from 60 percent the year earlier. Worse, the surveys show that younger buyers are increasingly attracted to foreign-built cars, which bodes ill for Detroit.

Yet even if consumers don't realize it, Detroit is turning itself around. Setting aside the less-than-realistic promises to return to profitability that GM and Chrysler have been making as they argue for more bailout money, domestic automakers are already building cars that are better than their reputations. Buick, a troubled GM division whose sales have been sliding since the mid-1980s, has nonetheless been at or near the top of J.D. Power's dependability surveys for the last five years, and other American brands have recently been matching or exceeding their foreign competitors.

We still think bankruptcy is a better option than another expensive bailout for Chrysler and GM. But if the car czars in Washington decide differently, they'd better be certain that the automakers have a plan to retool their images as well as their factories.

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