Here's an experiment that you can try on relatives, friends and neighbours over the holiday season. When all the usual topics like pensions, the health service, public transport, crime and education become too depressing, steer the conversation round to something everyone likes: cars.
Whether new or used, cars have never been more affordable or more popular, in spite of frequent frustrations associated with using them. It is the love affair that never wanes. What are the perceptions of your friends outside the motor industry about the various marques? Are they faithful to one manufacturer, and why? And, the old chestnut that is impossible to answer, what do they think are the best cars?
Recent registrations results suggest that the majority of people aspire to German brands, all of which are currently selling well in the UK. There are some solid reasons for this, ranging from residual values and safety issues to driving dynamics and prestige. But if you are told that German cars are better made and more reliable than those from other countries, you will know your friends have not followed developments in the car business for years.
The quality of German car makers is good, but it is not as good as the public thinks it is. Not surprisingly, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volkswagen are in no hurry to correct this perception.The reality is that German brands lost the quality crown to Japanese makers years ago. The evidence today is more scientific than the anecdotal examples overheard in the pub. There has been a steady stream of evidence since Dave Power made public his first analysis of car quality in the United States in 1981.
In broad terms, a succession of J.D. Power & Associates surveys revealed for the first time just how much better made and reliable Japanese cars are. At the same time, the surveys indicated that their dealerships employed human beings who appeared to like making their customers happy. It was an alien concept for a traditionally adversarial sector.
The giant domestic vehicle makers in the US, together with the then-small importers of European models, were initially dismissive because their weaknesses had been exposed, though all now put great store by their Power standings. They can afford to do so because they are not as deficient as they once were. Since then, Power's quality and reliability surveys have spread to Europe, Japan and India. Other organisations began to quantify cars in similar ways. These days, there is no lack of information on these topics, as an Internet search engine will quickly demonstrate.
Several surveys were published in the UK in recent months. They vary in their definitions, but what they have in common are leading rankings by Japanese brands. By contrast, German firms are often middling performers, little better or worse than those of South Korea or Sweden. Italian and French brands are generally near the bottom of any table, along with the products of a certain four-wheel-drive manufacturer from Solihull.
It is too simplistic to think in national terms these days, however. Rather than comparing, say, German or Japanese firms, it is more appropriate to consider what sort of ownership experience one can expect from a given brand. The post-national nature of the international motor industry has rendered old concepts obsolete. For example, many of the models that contributed to Toyota's No.1 position in the first J.D. Power customer satisfaction index in Germany were made in the UK. The Smart that was the leading "German" model in the Consumers' Association's reliability survey is assembled in France. Similarly, the leading "German" model in the Top Gear/Experian analysis was the BMW Z3, which is made in the United States.
Over at AutoExpress, 20 of the leading 25 models in last year's reliability rankings were by Japanese makers. While Toyotas finished first, third and fifth, the leading "German" model was the Porsche Boxster, which is assembled in Finland.
Few consumers seem to realise that many of the BMWs, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagens sold in the UK are built in South Africa rather than Germany. We also have Volkswagens from Mexico, Mercedes from Spain, Audis from Hungary, Vauxhalls from Poland, Renaults from Turkey and (soon) Hondas from China and Saabs from Japan.
The general thrust of the various analyses made public over the years is too consistent to be dismissed as unrepresentative. Even the internal customer satisfaction study financed by European-based car makers agrees on the heroes and villains. Their annual surveys rank alongside Pentagon military strategy in terms of secrecy, though parts of the 2002 version were recently leaked to Automotive News Europe. The publication reported that Mazda and Hyundai led the rankings. At the bottom were Fiat and Land Rover - and Mitsubishi, the one Japanese brand that never seems to reach the standards achieved by other car makers from the same country. Just above them was Mercedes-Benz, rated at the same level as Citroen.
To be ranked no higher than one of Europe's most aggressive discounters is an invidious position for a premium brand like Mercedes. Unless that changes, such a position would have long-term implications for a firm that boasts the quality and reliability of its products. Already, a Mercedes usually finishes these surveys below the equivalent model from its old adversary, BMW. The series of defects involving the A-class, M-class, C-class and V-class are borne out by the surveys, and yet Mercedes' reputation remains rock-solid and sales have never been higher.
Volkswagen is in a similar position, as it invariably finishes below the group's entry level Skoda brand in the various quality and reliability surveys. For example, the Skoda Octavia finished third overall in the Top Gear survey, compared with 106th (out of 137) for the more expensive VW Golf model on which it is based. Consumers will one day begin to wonder about the wisdom of paying more for a product that is quantifiably inferior.
The various results also raise questions about why Japanese brand cars are not more popular. Their overall market share in the UK and in the rest of Europe went up a little over the past year, but is still only marginally higher than it was a decade ago. In other words, the torrent of investment that saw Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Suzuki and Toyota factories established across Europe has so far achieved nothing in terms of sales.
It was the first real setback for a group of vehicle makers that had successfully swept all before it in Asia and was winning more customers in North America than European manufacturers ever had. Spending all that factory money in Europe for minimal gain was an embarrassment.
Japanese firms, particularly Toyota, soon realised the answer was more complex than build quality and factory efficiency. It is bound up in model planning policies, product design and technology, brand perceptions and distribution arrangements.
Japan's car makers were obliged to change direction. All their recent products were conceived with European consumers more in mind. Ultimately, that will be bad news for Europe's traditional car manufacturers, because a combination of top quality and European design flair will make Japan's car makers much more formidable over the next few years.