The Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research has attributed that phenomenon to a design practice that's particular to Asian automakers. Those manufacturers, the Center says, tend to think in terms of systems, rather than individual parts.
"There's a misperception about Japanese quality," said Jay Baron, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, in a 2005 Design News article. "People believe that Japanese automakers build all their parts very precisely, and it just isn't true. We found they don't care about making each part to a precise spec. They just want the assembly to be in spec."
Champion agrees with that assessment. "It's the assembly that counts," he told us. "Among the Japanese automakers, there's great attention to detail and time spent making sure that nothing rubs and everything is beautifully laid out."
He added, however, that those differences are a result of corporate culture. "It's just a matter of what's most important to the company," he said. "When Toyota went through its sudden unintended acceleration problem a couple of years ago, its engineers put up quality boards. They had external reviews. They put all sorts of measures in place to maintain their reliability leadership."
In contrast, North American companies tend to appease stockholders who want short-term profits -- often at the expense of long-term reliability, he said. As a result, the focus shifts to cost-cutting, instead of to engineering and quality.
"It comes down to what upper management instills in its work force," Champion said. "Those companies can get there if they want. They just need the single-minded focus to come down from upper management."