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American cars regaining popularity

America's love affair with the automobile has a new spark — a renewed affection for U.S.-made cars after a long dalliance with foreign automakers.

Slightly more Americans now say the United States makes better-quality vehicles than Asia does, with 38 percent saying U.S. cars are best and 33 percent naming autos made by Asian countries, according to an Associated Press-GfK Poll.

The poll was conducted in March, as Toyota was being roiled by nightmarish publicity over its recall of more than 8 million vehicles around the globe and allegations that it responded sluggishly to safety concerns.

Although the U.S. advantage is modest, it marks a significant turnabout for automakers battered by recession and relentless competition from foreign manufacturers.

When the same question was asked in a December 2006 AP-AOL poll, 46 percent said Asian countries made superior cars, while 29 percent preferred American vehicles, reflecting a perception of U.S. automotive inferiority that began taking hold about three decades ago.

Jeff Steves, general manager of Steves Chevrolet Buick in Oakdale, said U.S.-made cars are much better than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

"We let our guard down," he said of the poor quality and competitive opening it gave foreign automakers. "It woke us up."

Steves said attractive, well- engineered, more fuel-efficient and top safety-rated models — such as the new Malibu, Camaro and Equinox — have been very well received by consumers.

"When people come in and see these cars and drive them, they realize what great products they are," Steves said. "We don't see these cars coming back to our maintenance center after they're sold, except for just routine service."

Larry Smith, owner of Smith Chevrolet Cadillac in Turlock, said perception may finally be catching up to reality.

"Those of us in the industry have known for many years that American-made cars were as good or better than foreign-made cars," Smith said. "What it (the poll) shows is that we're finally closing the perception gap."

Americans have to support American products, Smith said, if they want to preserve manufacturing jobs. "It's good to see that Americans are focusing on quality work done by Americans and buying their products," he said. "We're back on their shopping list."

Changes at GM

Steves and Smith agreed that the poll findings come at a good time for General Motors, which also announced Wednesday that it repaid $8.1 billion in loans it got from the U.S. and Canadian governments, five years ahead of schedule.

"GM is reinventing itself," said Smith. "It was long overdue, but it needed to be done."

David Williams, dean of the business administration school at Wayne State University in Detroit, said Toyota's problems shouldn't be minimized in explaining the attitude shift reflected in the poll.

But Williams and others also cited a fresh look Americans are giving U.S. automakers, especially Ford and GM. Although GM and Chrysler went through bankruptcy last year, GM has revamped and upgraded its lineup. Analysts say Ford got a boost by not accepting the taxpayer bailout and improving its vehicles' gasoline mileage.

Highlighting the changing attitudes, 15 percent in the March poll said Toyota makes the best cars, down from 25 percent who said so in 2006. Moving in the opposite direction was Ford, cited as tops by just 9 percent in 2006 but by 18 percent last month.

Eighteen percent said GM cars were best, little changed from 2006. Chrysler — which continues to struggle — remained mired at 3 percent.

European autos — which include BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volks-wagen — were called top quality by 15 percent last month, compared with 17 percent who said so four years ago.

For Northern San Joaquin Valley dealers Smith and Steves, the poll results come at a good time. With the sales season heating up with the approach of summer, Steves said there will be lots of incentives, good loan options (including zero interest) and plenty of available credit for buyers.

But neither expects it to be easy going for valley dealers. With unemployment rates hovering at or above 20 percent, they know they still have their work cut out for them.

Now, though, their cars are once again part of potential buyers' conversations. If that causes more people to visit dealers to look over and test drive U.S.-made cars, perceptions might keep improving.

Bee City Editor David W. Hill can be reached at dhill@modbee.com or 578-2336.

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