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G.M. and Ford Channel Toyota to Beat Toyota

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G.M. and Ford Channel Toyota to Beat Toyota

JOSH SMITH is a large man with a shaved head, a goatee and a look in his eyes that can only be described as stoked. And he is never more stoked than when he talks about his job, one of the strangest at the General Motors Proving Grounds, here in this suburb 45 miles northwest of Detroit.

All day, he breaks G.M. parts.

Not just any parts. Mr. Smith is a member of Red X, a team of 33 engineers who study auto parts that are malfunctioning for reasons that have everyone stumped. The work is a little bit “CSI” and a little bit “MythBusters.” Red X takes working parts and methodically torments them in controlled experiments, hoping to re-enact the demise of ones that failed.

“Every defective part is like a dead body,” says Mr. Smith, giving a tour of the premises late last month. “To figure out what killed it, we need to duplicate the crime.”

Members of this elite little group say they have gone from fixing major problems that affect hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the road to fine-tuning pre-production models that are not yet on sale. And that change highlights a message that G.M. — as well as its domestic archrival Ford — are both pitching hard these days: We’re better now. Oh, we made some stinkers in the past, no doubt about it. But that was then. Look at us now.

It’s been a tough sell, particularly at G.M., which has lagged behind Ford in quality ratings, needed a $50 billion taxpayer bailout and just last week announced a recall of 1.3 million vehicles. (Chrysler, which is now controlled by Fiat, is in what could politely be called a “transition phase” and has yet to try, let alone pull off, a makeover.)

But in the last two months, G.M. and Ford have been handed a once-in-a-generation chance to make their case to an American buying public that is listening as never before.

Perhaps you’ve heard: Toyota, long considered the industry’s king of quality, has stumbled disastrously with a now-infamous “sudden acceleration” problem that led to the recall of more than eight million vehicles. The ordeal has included every element of an American-style corporate nightmare, including apologies, class-action lawsuits and, inevitably, Congressional hearings.

For the first time in decades, shoppers who once would have headed directly to the nearest Toyota dealership are taking a look at American automakers. A rare opportunity has knocked. But are G.M. and Ford ready to answer?

Absolutely, the companies say, and analysts and consumer surveys suggest that both companies have made substantial, if rather overdue, strides in the last three years in improving vehicle reliability.

The fuller picture is more complicated, particularly at G.M. Red X engineers may indeed focus on small-bore problems with vehicles that haven’t hit showrooms, but the company still deals with the occasional headline-making disaster — like the power-steering failures in Chevrolets and Pontiacs that spurred the recall last week.

“We’ve had reports of 13 accidents and one injury,” said Jamie Hresko, the company’s vice president for quality, sounding a little weary in a phone interview at the end of the day when the recall was announced.

“That’s a very small population of vehicles,” he said. “But I look at it this way: If we’re really all about changing the culture here, we will put the customer first. And by announcing this recall, that’s what we’re doing.”

THE history of quality is a slightly sore subject for American automakers. Ford’s vice president for global quality, Bennie Fowler, will gladly explain that it now takes just 72 hours for warranty claim information to flow from a dealer’s repair shop to the factory floor, where a manufacturing adjustment might be needed. He’s less eager to discuss the past, when that same journey took 30 days.

“You might say that all of our reforms seem like common sense and we should have been doing all of this a long time ago,” says Mr. Fowler. “I wouldn’t disagree with that. Suffice it to say, we now understand all the elements of quality, and we’re working to ensure that whatever happened in the past doesn’t happen again.”

Ford and G.M. have taken impressive steps over the last five years to improve the performance and durability of their vehicles. But every undertaking raises the same question: What took you so long?

Part of the answer, academics and industry analysts say, is that for years American carmakers made so much money from high-margin behemoths like pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s that ignoring quality held little financial downside — at least in the short term.

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