As the 2012 Detroit Auto Show approaches, the American auto industry looks to be stronger than it has in many years.
Massive restructurings, helped by government-run bankruptcies, helped GM and Chrysler improve their balance sheets, but product turnarounds at all three domestic automakers have been in the making for far longer and are now bearing fruit.
American cars have improved to the point that drivers can no longer simply assume that a similarly priced Toyota or Volkswagen vehicle will be better.
But, since CNNMoney's last report on Detroit's quality comeback, some surprising trends have emerged. Ford, long the industry leader in quality, has stumbled while Chrysler, which has lagged the industry even longer, is coming on strong.
"Chrysler's had a fairly meteoric rise," said David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports, of the carmaker's improvement in dependability surveys. But it's been true in other ways, as well. In 2011, Chrysler's retail sales were up 45 percent compared to 2010.
Consumer Reports' car testers have called the new Chrysler 300 "the best Chrysler in decades." The magazine now ranks it among the best large sedans sold in America.
The new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs have been similarly lauded with Consumer Reports reliability survey showing the Durango to be the best large SUV.
"There's greater attention to detail, product quality, a more refined vehicle, overall," said Champion.
Customers like Chrysler Group products better, too. In the most recent J.D. Power APEAL survey, which rates how much new car owners like their vehicles, the Dodge Charger, Challenger and Durango all topped their respective segments.
Doug Betts, the executive in charge of improving the quality of Chrysler Group products, expects the gains to continue.
"We're doing the kind of things that are the things you do when you end up at the top spot [for quality]," Betts said. "It doesn't seem unlikely now."
Champion is less certain. He's seen carmakers improve, then lose their focus, before.
"For Chrysler to succeed, they have to keep that quality," he said.
Both J.D. Power's most recent Initial Quality survey and Consumer Reports latest dependability survey showed Ford falling hard. In Consumer Reports' rankings, the Ford brand tumbled from 10th place to 20th.
But the experts aren't terribly concerned about Ford's recent tumble. Ford has, in the past, shown a disciplined approach to quality. This time, the problems center around two well-known issues.
"If they can put those things right, I think we'll see Ford come back up again," said Champion.
Many of the complaints dogging Ford have centered around a new so-called "dual-clutch" transmissions in the Focus and Fiesta small cars. Before the Consumer Reports survey was released, Ford had already sent instructions to dealers on how to fix some of the problems.
Another hang-up for Ford has been the MyFord Sync entertainment and navigation interface. The system has proven baffling to many users but, even worse, it has shown a tendency to freeze up and crash.
Ford will soon begin distributing software updates that should help.
But finding an overall solution to the baffled users problem may be harder. Ford is asking dealers to spend more time teaching customers to use the system, although ultimately an automaker's interface has to be intuitive enough for users to catch on without hand-holding.
At General Motors, the cars look, drive and feel better than ever. But GM's cars -- Chevrolets, Buicks, GMCs and Cadillacs -- still suffer from problems at a relatively high rate, according to a recent owner survey by Consumer Reports.
The popular Chevrolet Cruze compact car, for instance, was ranked as the least dependable car in its class, as was the Chevrolet Malibu and the all-wheel-drive Buick LaCrosse. No GM models ranked best-in-class for dependability.