Last year, as the economy reeled and the auto industry teetered on the brink of collapse, Ford Motor Co. earned a dubious distinction: It was the only U.S. automaker that decided it could survive without a government bailout.
Yesterday, Ford won a more straightforward honor. Consumer Reports announced its latest survey of more than a million subscribers, and said its data demonstrated that Ford had "secured its position as the only Detroit automaker with world-class reliability."
For the third year in a row, Ford vehicles scored in the top tier of Consumer Reports' reliability rankings, long top-heavy with Japanese models. The magazine said Ford's steady lead over its domestic competition and most European automakers showed its success was not an anomaly.
"It's not the best - Toyota and Honda still are the best," said Jake Fisher, a senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports and manager of its online automotive content. "But the point is that for the last three years it has maintained its position. So it's not a fluke."
Ford's Mercury nameplate ranked 10th among 33 brands in Consumer Reports' ratings of brands' predicted reliability for 2010 models - behind seven Japanese brands, South Korea's Hyundai, and Germany's Porsche.
Although its Ford and Lincoln nameplates came in lower, Ford's overall results as a manufacturer continued to be impressive.
Ninety percent of all Ford models - 46 out of 51 - were found to have at least average reliability. And Fisher said Ford did even better by other measures, such as the reliability of some of its top-selling cars.
"The Ford Focus actually is more reliable than a Toyota Corolla. The Ford Fusion is more reliable than a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord," he said in an interview before yesterday's release of the reliability data at a Detroit news conference.
Fisher said Ford's success also extended to at least some of its higher-end products, which compete in a niche that has long been a sweet spot for the luxury brands of Japan's top automakers.
"If you look at upscale sedans, the Lincoln MKZ has higher reliability than a Lexus ES or Acura TL," Fisher said.
Consumer Reports, published by the nonprofit Consumers Union, is not alone in evaluating vehicles' longer-term reliability. Each year, J.D. Power & Associates publishes a "Vehicle Dependability Study" that ranks nameplates based on a survey of owners of three-year-old vehicles.
In March, General Motors' Buick brand led the Power survey of owners of 2006 vehicles, and Cadillac came in ninth among 37 nameplates. But Ford also did well, with Mercury landing in fifth place and Lincoln in eighth.
Power's data capture a broader spectrum of "things gone wrong" with vehicles, with even the best brands recording an average of more than one problem per car. Consumer Reports focuses instead on less-common incidents that survey participants consider "serious problems," such as those that make a car temporarily unusable.
"We're not looking for 'The cupholder doesn't hold my beverage,' or 'The ride is too stiff,' " Fisher said. "When the car actually malfunctions, that's what we're recording."
Fisher said the most reliable vehicles were not always the best-designed or most popular among survey respondents, which this year included more than one million magazine and online subscribers who reported on their experiences with 1.4 million vehicles.
"We actually find that some people are very satisfied with their cars and really like their cars, but still are telling us that their cars aren't very reliable," Fisher said.
That goes for Consumer Reports' evaluators, too.
"We loved the Cadillac CTS when it came out, but it had terrible reliability," Fisher said.
But reliability has long been a major selling point for Honda, Toyota, and other leading brands. Many of Detroit's critics say its seeming inattention to reliability - its focus on sexiness and sizzle over dependable design - was a big factor in its financial decline.
So how has Ford made it into the top tier of automaker reliability?
Fisher said the magazine's surveys showed that a model's reliability tended to improve over time as manufacturers worked out the bugs. He credits Ford for its willingness to find a good design and stick with it - to be the tortoise rather than the hare in the automakers' race.
Fisher said that "slow and steady" approach has proved its value, as has Ford's partial ownership of Mazda, the Japanese automaker.
For instance, Ford's Fusion was based on the Mazda 6, and as a result was launched with fewer bugs than many new models. And Ford has stuck with incremental redesigns of its Focus model, keeping many components from its predecessor.
"The Ford Focus hasn't been changed substantially since it was introduced in 1999," Fisher said. Though it was initially plagued by recalls, the Focus has become one of the most dependable cars around.
"Since they didn't try to reinvent the wheel, and they just worked year after year to work out the bugs, it's a reliable car today," Fisher said.
The predicted reliability score is a percentage showing how much less often than average a model is expected to have problems.
1. Honda Insight 91.4
2. Toyota Yaris hatchback 72.5
3. Honda Fit 67.7
4. Scion xD 61.6
5. Toyota Yaris sedan 56.7
6. Volkswagen Golf (Rabbit) 52.1
7. Subaru Impreza Outback Sport 51.5
8. Honda Civic Sedan 50.5
9. Hyundai Elantra 49.8
10. Mazda3 Sedan 44.0
1. Toyota Prius (2009) 65.9
2. Ford Fusion (4-cyl.) 55.3
3. Mercury Milan (4-cyl.) 55.3
4. Volvo S40 (FWD) 55.1
5. Ford Fusion (V6, FWD) 52.5
6. Mercury Milan (V6, FWD) 52.5
7. Ford Fusion Hybrid 51.8
8. Mercury Milan Hybrid 51.8
9. Nissan Altima Hybrid 48.6
10. Toyota Camry Hybrid 45.7
SOURCE: Consumer Reports