Why are the Japanese cars better?

It seems in general that the major Japanese car manufacturers make better cars than the domestic manufacturers in the United States. But what about the way they are designed and their mechanics make them better?

One popular theory or component is that since Japanese manufacturers aren’t hampered by union-mandated “one guy, one job” rules like their US counterparts, more workers have knowledge of different parts of the process and do multiple jobs, leading to a higher level of quality control across the board.

Until the last few years, it used to be that Japanese cars were better. That’s not generally the case anymore. Just about any American product is just as a good as any Japanese product. The more poignant question, I think, is why European cars are so low. While they have excellent initial quality results (better than average, in fact), their longer term reliability pales in comparison to the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Americans. Volvo, Ford, and Opal seem to rise to the top of the European lists, though.

In general, in the United States and Canada (different results in different markets, by the way), anything that’s a recent design/model is just as good as anything else.

I have access to all of the JD Powers quality results, unfortunately they’re internal and I can’t link to them.

It’s important to define what is quality. Can anyone conclusively state what it is? The initial quality reports, for example, gage customer feelings about the quality of their purchases, and includes objective observations such as things-gone-wrong per thousand vehicles, as well as subjective things such as perceived quality of finishes. Then there’s long term quality. What’s that? How long does the paint stay on? Do your transmissions fall apart at 60,000 miles? Do your electronics like to fry?

When failures occur, is it because they were improperly assembled? Is it because the parts were underrated for their duty? Was the design and release engineer hung over the day he approved the specs for the fuel delivery module and missed something critical? Then, how do companies react when problems are detected?

Man, this could drag on to an expose of the entire industry! :wink:

Finance can make a big differance.

Back when Japanese industry was destroyed, re-equipping meant installing much more modern production facilities, which can only come from either an expectation of very long term returns, or very cheap money.

In practice for the Japanese it meant all of these things.

Add in a few other factors such as labour reform, and a far less stratified management structure and you have some of the starting ingredients for change.

The union reform isn’t anything new, but you’ll note that the multi-skill multi-task worker was something that rose to prominence in Germany and Japan.

Part of this dates back to pre WWII, when British management experts posited this idea, but were completely unable to implement it.

The idea is that one factory has all its workers in a single union and with no demarcation in work tasks. The management and unions consult with the best way to achieve the companies strategic objectives.

In Britain, the class system meant there was not enough trust to carry this off. This lack of trust goes back generations, right through to the general strike of 1926, but basically why would workers trust a management that sees them as completely disposable.

The US went through an immense industrial boom during WWII and post WW2 and had little need to worry about maximising efficiency.

Germany & Japan had a completely differant problem, a shortage of labour along with a need to maximise flexibility of production, the industries of these countries had to build from the ground up, relatively small production volumes makes for a differant type of production line. When labour is scarce, each worker is an investment and not a cost, you also hire fewer of them, and use machines to do the grunt work.

Certainly, in the UK, the designers and managers ruled in terms of production, but anyone in any industry understands that its those on the shop floor who understand the day to day problems, and can suggest improvements. The heirarchical nature of UK industry especially in the 60’s & 70’s meant that ideas were often ignored, or unrewarded if they came from the lower levels.

In contrast, Japanese methods encourage a system of suggestions, projects and improvements from the lower levels, so that you’ll find that UK & US cars are made from a greater number of parts and panels compared to Japanese ones.

Although the benefits of this approach have been known for quite some time, the Japanese keep upping the standard, and we seem reluctant (or lazy) to keep up the chase.

You can look at any number of industries that the Japanese have come to dominate, and examine the early innovations that out competed the West.

Some of those innovations are relatively straightforward, and should have been obvious to the Western manufacturers, but somehow we stayed hidebound.

Example, in the motorcycle industry the UK was by far the largest manufacturer.

The Japanese took a close look at the Triumph and the BSA and worked out how they could improve them.

British bikes were known for leaking oil, having poor electrics and poor lubrication systems.

The Japanese re engineered the crankcases, so that instead of splitting vertically, they split horizontally, now there was no way oil could leak out.
They put on alternators instead of dynamos, and they changed plain bushes for pressure fed roller bearings - hey presto, bikes that didn’t have to be stripped down every 10k miles.

You can repeat this in almost every aspect of product, things such as car radios and even heated windscreens were extra options in Western cars, but they were standard fittings in Japanese cars.

The Japanese made their mistakes, think of Datsun rust buckets, but they didn’t doggedly persist in making them, they looked at where they went wrong, and instead of blaming, got on with the task of setting things right.

This can only be made possible if there is a consistant flow of cash to invest, that cash needs to be cheap, and the expectation of reward comes from lowering costs through innovation, not on racking up the price for the maximum return.

Western investment strategy is to make as much profit as possible out of the minimum investment in as short a time as possible, and this does not lend itself readily to innovation which can take a couple of decades to pay off.

There are plenty of other factors, such as market protectionism, but basicly, western industry prefers to continue on its way without innovation (which costs money), until they are forced, which means western industry is always behind the game.

I think this encapsulates it perfectly.

Define a Japaneese car manufacturer.
Would it be a percentage of the board of directors that call Japan home?
Where the final assembly takes place?
The origin of the name of the company?

We make Japaneese cars here in the US. How are they different from the US manufactured cars made right down the street with the same unions and laws and culture?

I do remember a 60 Minutes piece from way back where the farmers had settled on John Deer equipment becuase they thought it was American, when in fact is was made in Japan. The poorly selling Japaneese competition was made here in the US. The Japaneese product was the Matshiusta … Matchichsta … Mat … Panasonic or something.

IMO it was in fact the work of professor J. Edwards Deming that the Japanese embraced that turned their manufacturing quality around.
They were producing cheap crap that didn’t last and recognised that this was unsustainable, they had a reputation for unreliable products that was seriously damaging sales.

Deming’s teachings turned them around and they have continued to implement and expand on what they have learned.

The rest of the world is learning but do not really embrace the ethos, just apply the bare minimum to save the day.

This is obviously a sweeping generalisation and there are of course many notable exceptions but is a workable rule of thumb.

The bottom line is that it is more cost effective and ultimately cheaper to produce good stuff that sells than junk that doesn’t.

Some say that Edward Deming had a lot to do with it. Every engineer on the board probably knows about him, and so should anyone else who is interested in process improvement.

Still no definition of what “it” is today.

There is nothing bigger than a breadbox that is the product of one country.

Good points. I’ve always assumed that this was what distinguished them: x car is x’ian if enough of the following are true (but, what’s “enough”?):
[li]The car is designed in x.[/li][li]The assembly process is designed in x.[/li][li]A great number of components are designed and/or sourced in x.[/li][li]The car is manufactured in x, or originally manufactured in x and then transplanted to y.[/li][li]The majority of the employees who had anything to do with the existence of the car are from x.[/li][/ul]

So, is the Honda Civic an American car? I’m going to say no, even though when I had to defend my decision to own two of them subsequently I would point out that they’re American made. And that’s true ; they’re American made cars.

How about the Corolla? Some are made in America, some are made in Canada, and some (I think) still come from Japan. Is an American-made Corolla an American car? I’ll still say no, even though it may be American-made.

One of my very favorites, the Ford Fusion, made in Mexico. Clearly it’s not an American made car, and in fact it has a lot of design influence from Mazda in Japan (Mazda 6). I’d still call it an American car, though, because it was transformed into what it is by American engineers, the tooling and process was American made and designed, and its production is still under US control. Also many of the parts are US sourced.

But what about the Mazda 6? It’s made in the very same plant as the Ford Mustang! This puts me in the awkward predicament of saying that the Mazda 6 is a Japanese car while the Ford Mustang in the very same plant is an American car! And yeah, they’re both American-made (and in this case, union rep’d).

I’m going off on a tangent now, but it’s completely relevant to the points above. When people indicate that it may be good or bad for the economy to buy or not buy an “American car,” it doesn’t matter that a car is made in the USA. That’s only 1500-2500 employees in any US plant, whether the car is German, Japanese, or Korean. Where all of the other work is done ultimately affects thousands of employees for every line of car. Where the profits go is irrelevant – you can own stock in any of them. It’s really where the reinvestment goes. When you buy “American” you’re reinvesting the non-dividend portion back into the United States’ economy.

I’ve installed assembly plants in Mexico and Canada the last few years (“American cars”), but my paycheck comes back home, where I pay interest to American banks, I pay profits to American grocery stores, and everything else I earn goes back into the US economy. This is what continues to make them American cars despite their points of origin.

Keep in mind I’m not trying to blindly plead “buy American” (I’ve owned two Hondas), but trying to illuminate why “buy American” isn’t just to benefit a few people in a single plant. Buy what’s right for you; that’s what makes competition work, and competition is exactly what made American cars good again. In pure capitalism, even buying a “foreign car” can only help to improve the “American cars.” (I hope not to change my free-market tune when I’m out of a job.)

Also, for the sake of completeness, one of the distinguishing competitive differences between the US manufacturers’ plants and the transplants’ is that they’re mostly not unionized. There’s a long and complex history behind that, and in the end it’s the Americans’ fault that they gave out so much when there was no competition (all of the “Big 3” negotiated the same benefits with the UAW), and they’ve got to try to live with it now. It’s often said there’s a $25 per hour wage/benefit gap between the transplants and the Americans, including the health care obligations the Americans have towards their retirees. There are also work flexibility arrangements that are different that are mentioned above. For example, the UAW traditionally enforces a strong line between skilled trades, in that a simple operation may involve the use of a pipe fitter, electrician, and millwright because there’s a hose, a circuit breaker, and a fence. One smart fellow could do the job in 10 minutes, but the job sharing involves three people and an hour. Slowly this is changing, though, because the free market is convincing the UAW that this just can’t work. You may see “competitive operating agreements” being mentioned in the news of late, and this is part of what it involves. When you say “culture,” I’m assuming you mean “work culture,” and if you see where the transplants are, you’ll see that there’s no pre-existing work culture where they’re at. Given all of that, some transplants’ plants are unionized, such as the Mazda plant I mentioned earlier, and some of the Toyota/GM partnership plants (NUMMI), and Canadian plants.

European 'Dopers and Australians: are Fords and GM’s “American cars” in your every day parlance? Most of your Fords and GM’s are locally produced in your own markets.

One big factor is that the Japanese companies tend to take the long view. They will invest in technology etc. that won’t pay off for 10-20 years. They will spend more to make cars better than they need to be so that the customer will buy them again and again. American companies are all about making this quarter’s numbers.

Unless it is an import (Mustang, Neon etc.) then no, they are considered to be British, sometimes even German assembled vehicles.

The only ‘Japanese’ car I have had was a Honda Accord, assembled in the Rover plant in England.
It was still a Japanese car though and was not dogged with the problems that Rover cars traditionally were dogged with.

It was also the most trouble-free car I have had, lived up to it’s reputation until it was rear-ended and written off.

I agree with the above poster: Ford and Vauxhall (GM) cars are not considered to be “American” in the UK. The parent companies are American, of course, but the cars are not.

When the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards were first enacted Japanese auto maufacturers went out and hired thousands of engineers to meet the fuel economy standards. US auto manufacturers hired thousands of lawyers and lobbyists to avoid the standards. The reliance on legal and political solutions for what is essentially an engineering problem is symptomatic of what is wrong with the US automobile industry. Sadly, the Japanese are joining their American counterparts now.

Let’s not forget the role of management. In the Wiki article it states,

They aren’t.

Existing technology and infrastructure is the current limitation, and I find it reassuring that the Japanese are on the side of the Americans in this one. We’re both pretty much at the limit of what the internal combustion engine can deliver right now. We can’t just make everything a hybrid, because there aren’t enough raw materials available to do it and keep cars within an affordable price range yet. Cars like the Volt and other plug-ins seem like the logical choice, but we don’t have an infrastructure to support a 100% conversion yet. Back when CAFE was implemented, there was lots of room for improvement because no one had ever decided to try to improve. Since that time, though, we’ve all put massive resources into getting the efficiencies that we have in today’s I.C. engines. When comparing overall fleet CAFE’s, the Japanese have an advantage due to the Americans’ volume of trucks and SUV’s, but taken on an apples-to-apples basis, the fuel economies are pretty much par. Where there’s a difference it’s due to weight and performance requirements, and that’s due to customer expectations. That’s an important distinction, because it’s customer expectations that will suffer when CAFE is tightened up. How do you get 10 mpg more out of a car that’s already running at peak I.C. engine efficiency? You lighten it up. There are ways to do that and preserve the body integrity for crashes, but you’ll always reach a limit such that the only other available option is to downsize the vehicle. Americans, though, just don’t want these tiny little vehicles. Sure, there are some people that buy Yarises, Fits, and Aveos, but they’re outnumbered by a huge margin. Increasing CAFE requirements automatically means that neither the Japanese nor the Americans will be able to build the vehicles that the majority of their customers really want.

Rather than increasing CAFE, the solution seems really obvious – jack up the federal gasoline tax. We’ve already seen a significant number of Americans voluntarily downsize their vehicles due to the increased price of gasoline these last couple of years. SUV sales have tanked, and non-work purchases of full-sized pickups have decreased significantly, affecting both the Americans and the Japanese. However those that have the money to fill their tanks still have the option of purchasing something larger if that’s what they want. Instead of increasing CAFE, a large gasoline tax will continue this voluntary effect, and then maybe some day we’ll be much more European in the sense that tiny cars are the norm. As in Europe, if you have the money and will, you’ll still be free to purchase something full size that meets your fancy. The current effect of CAFE and a tightened CAFE is that in order to maintain legal CAFE, you have to dump a huge volume of tiny cars with almost non-existent margins to offset the sales of the cars that people really want to buy that increase your CAFE. Both the Japanese and the Americans realize that this isn’t a favorable means of staying profitable, and hence that’s why they’re teaming up for a change to fight an increased CAFE. It’s really an engineering decision, because politicos have no idea how the market works.

I agree with you Balthisar that raising the federal gasoline taxes is a more significant driver for increased fuel economy. My point is that the lobbying effort is symptomatic of a philosophical problem. They spent money on lawyers and lobbyists to fight CAFE standards, and bumper regulations, and seat belts, and air bags, and every other federal standard enacted. This is not to say that every one of these standards was a good idea, but the knee jerk reaction shouldn’t always be to hire a lawyer. Sometimes you need an engineer.

I submit that the politicos do understand how the market works-and this is the effect they want. That is, cheap cars for price-concious buyers and expensive cars for people who want them and can afford them. Using the CAFE method, someone who is willing to risk their life on the road can drive a cheap car with cheap gas with high fuel economy. People who want big cars will pay a premium. Raising the gas tax does not have all these “desirable” effects as the small car people (ie voters) will pay more taxes and higher car prices as the manufacturer will have no incentive to lower price to push the car to maintain their CAFE. The risk here is that while I am willing to risk my life on the road, I want a low-maintenance car (my definition of high-quality) and I am more likely to get that (IMHO) from a Japanese manufacturer. And while the high profits that come from a premium on big cars is presumed to go to the American manufacturer, the Japanese are building big cars to. So, CAFE runs the risk of pushing everyone over to Japan. Raising the fuel tax may or may not have that effect. Personally, I would rather raise the CAFE since I think it accomplishes much of what a gas tax would while leaving some advantages for people willing to buy small cars (rewards those willing to take a risk), but raising taxes is also a way to accomplish the fuel savings.

I’m going to speculate that Japanese culture has something to do with it. If you watch Japanese people at work, they tend to do things 100% by the book. Obedience and following the instructions of authority seem to be very important in Japanese culture.

For mass producing complex machinery like automobiles, it’s probably helpful to have a work force with that sort of an attitude.