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Can Ford take Toyota's crown?

Blue Oval Baby!
Blue Oval Baby!

If you’re a Chicagoland Ford dealer, or if you’re one of the 1,200 new workers expected to be hired at the Chicago Heights Ford assembly plant to build the redesigned Explorer later this year, you’re feeling pretty good right now. Ford means quality, it means business, and it means job security. At least that’s the growing perception as Toyota continues to struggle through its labyrinthine PR mess.

Now, to be fair, Toyota is in part a victim. All automakers have flaws in their products, and in almost all cases they know about them (and are generally tracking them). All automakers also “lobby” federal officials with regards to potential recalls, occasionally pleading their cases not to go through the expense and embarrassment of a safety recall. Toyota made some mistakes in this delicate dance, and the press got wind of it, reporters rushing into the feeding frenzy to enhance their own reputations. Congress soon realized how such a perfect distraction from their failures would benefit them, too, and they jumped in with both feet (with both of those feet in their mouths – quite a feat!).

But let’s take a closer look at one of the real winners here, namely Ford. It isn’t Ford’s fault Toyota is suffering, though Ford’s marketeers are certainly trying to take advantage of the situation to boost Ford’s perceived brand strength. The interesting thing is that Ford has actually been close to Toyota in most quality metrics for quite some time now, and according to a study last year by RDA Group in Bloomfield Hills, MI, Ford was actually tops in quality, beating both Toyota and Honda. Most people didn’t hear about that report (it wasn’t the J.D. Power rankings, after all), but Toyota’s miscues are causing more people to take notice and start recognizing the quality data.

In addition, Ford benefits from the powerful admiration of the American public for not accepting government bailout money. The image of a strong, determined American company lifting itself out of the recession by its own bootstraps fuels a nationalistic pride and opens broad avenues of opportunity to Ford in the U.S.

In the month of February, Ford’s sales in the U.S. rose 43% year-over-year, headlining gains for pretty much everybody except Toyota, which saw a 9% decline. And Ford actually outsold GM in the U.S. for the first time since a GM strike in 1998.

So is Ford about to be crowned the new king of the automotive world? Well, let’s not get too hasty. But it certainly fits into the category of crown prince now. Time will tell, and as Toyota has learned the hard way, being king doesn’t just mean selling the most cars – it means consistently taking care of your customers.