Dear Tom and Ray:
I am a great fan of your column (and that is probably why I get myself into so much trouble). I have been noticing that you answer foreign-car questions more often than American-car questions. We own a Mercury Grand Marquis and love the size, reliability and power. So, I am accusing you of being traitors in fairness to the great old U.S.A. -- Peter
TOM: Well, if we're answering so many more foreign-car questions, it's probably because those lousy foreign cars break down more often, and their owners need more of our help, Peter!
RAY: Actually, there's nothing intentional about the origin of the cars in our questions. We pick from what folks send us, and we try to choose questions that we think might be interesting to all of our readers that day.
TOM: In terms of the merits of foreign vs. American cars underlying your question, it's important to note that it's not all that clear anymore which is which. Toyotas are built in Kentucky, Hondas in Ohio, and Mercedes in Alabama. Chrysler is owned by Germans, and your own Mercury Grand Marquis was built in Canada.
RAY: But if we look strictly at the origin of the nameplates (Ford, Toyota, etc.), the latest "frequency of repair" data shows that, as a whole, American cars are better than European cars, but still not as good as Japanese cars.
TOM: To use a fairly neutral source, the latest automotive issue of Consumer Reports named the top vehicles in 10 categories. They evaluated more than 200 new cars for qualities like ride, handling, safety and reliability. Nine of their top 10 picks are Japanese. One is American (the Ford Focus).
RAY: In terms of reliability only, CR called 15 cars "Most Reliable," based on detailed reports from thousands of owners. Every single one of the "Most Reliable" cars is Japanese.
TOM: Of the 14 dubbed "Least Reliable," nine are European, two are Japanese, one is Korean and one is American (the Lincoln Navigator).
RAY: Now, you might argue that Consumer Reports is a traitor, too. But we think their evaluations -- especially those regarding reliability and safety -- are pretty darned good. And they say that, in general, American cars -- while much better than they used to be -- are average to slightly below-average in reliability when compared with today's competition.
TOM: What American cars do often provide, however, is pretty good value. Now that everybody knows that Japanese cars are super-reliable, Toyota and Honda are charging a premium for them over comparably sized American cars. So, if you want to spend less on your initial purchase, you might find a better deal in an American-car showroom.
RAY: Over the life of the car, however, Consumer Reports' data suggests that when you factor in repair costs, you'll spend less on a Japanese car. That's been our observation, too.
TOM: American cars are also known for their roominess. Like your Grand Marquis, they provide good elbow room and nice, comfortable, wide seats for cornfed, wide-seated Americans (like my brother).
RAY: And the larger cars, like your Grand Marquis, have an inherent safety advantage due to their size and weight. So those are all positives.
TOM: And there are some fantastic American cars out there. The Cadillac STS, the Chrysler 300C and the Ford Freestyle are just a few we've driven recently.
RAY: We do our best to call 'em as we see 'em, Peter. I'm sure we're not perfectly neutral. For instance, my brother has an unnatural warm spot for General Motors, because he lived happily in one of their cars for a few months after his first divorce. And I've never liked Nissan 300Z's, since one of them fell off a lift and tried to kill me.
TOM: But we do our best to be fair, and we base our opinions on our real-world experience testing the cars and fixing them when our customers bring them into our shop. But we're happy you love your roomy, reliable Grand Marquis, and I'm sure you're not alone.