Why I still hesitate to buy an American-made vehicle

If you own an older American-made vehicle which constantly need repairs, you're not alone. This is why I and others still look to Japanese auto makers for reliable and low-cost transportation.

Before heading back to his last semester as a college undergraduate, my son told us we should buy an American car. I want to do the patriotic thing, but hesitate because I still sense reliability over the longterm favors a Toyota or Honda.

My 1997 Chevy Silverado has been reliable for the four years I've owned it, but has one costly meltdown a year. Granted, the truck is 13 years old, but only has 91k miles on it. I ask: would a 13-year Nissan or Toyota truck have an annual meltdown? I think not. Our several experiences with Toyotas and Hondas have been in a word, terrific.

My 1997 Silverado: Things rot out undeneath.

Things underneath the Silverado tend to rust out: one year on the stiffling hot day when we were going to move my daughter into college, the oil cooler lines failed. Transmission oil turned the driveway into a slippery mess adding to the stress of the day. Perhaps the breakdown was prophetic: my daughter transferred after the first semester.

I just got off the phone with Joe, my mechanic, his real name. He delivered the bad news: an $831bill to replace rusted out front brake calipers, real wheel cylinders, master cylinder and the booster that provides the power to power brakes. ALL HAD FAILED. Various brake lines have rotted out, too.

I knew the front calipers were failing because for about year, they were producing a burning brake smell from not retracting properly. The real wheel cylinders were functioning, but the bleed nipples were so rusted, Joe couldn't remove the air out of the system and bring up the brake peddle. Then, he couldn't bleed the brakes because the master cylinder was leaking. Fluid got into the booster (that big round cylinder affixed to firewall on the driver's wide) and damaged it.

I wondered if he had misdiagnosed a single problem and went crazy replacing parts. But I know him to be very conservative and, frankly, everything that failed was consistent with the truck's repair history.

Ok, so scratch GM. How about a Ford? The company, which declined bailout funds, is on a roll with handsome lineup of thoroughly contemporary vehicles. When I was growing up, Fords were the least reliable of the big Three auto makers and those perceptions die hard. My last Ford experience was 1991 Taurus wagon which started falling apart at 90k miles.

Consumer Reports ranks Chevy ahead of Nissan or Toyota in full size pickups. Honda, Nissan and Toyota in that order win on compact pickups. But the real test is what these vehicles will be doing in ten years. Consumer Reports shows the Silverado's reliability steadily improving since 2000. I found a review of my truck with headline that precisely capture my experience: "The older the rock gets, the more it breaks down."

I read where longtime and outspoken GM executive Bob Lutz (how did he survive all the recent purges at GM!?) said consumers won't buy from GM because it took government bailout money.

That may be true, but that's not the problem. Japanese automakers have sold reliable vehicles in America for 30 years so even GM had matched their quality for the past decade and I don't believe it has, the company would still be behind. And the fact is, it is (Cash for Clunkers helped get some of those lingering bad memories off the road, though!).

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com