‘I used to say that buying a Taurus was like marrying Marilyn Monroe.

… she would never cook you breakfast … she would never be on time for anything … But there were other compensations.’

First, I am not against quality and I am all for safe cars. If a car has serious problems, it won't sell. One of my sons, a magazine writer, has been driving a Taurus for 120,000 miles. It never, not once, broke down on him, but he's had three transmissions (one warranty, one recall, and one Ford split the cost with him). The steering never felt right to him, either. Now he's looking for a new car, but those transmissions and fuzzy steering soured him on Ford. He'll probably get a Nissan Maxima.

We all recall tales of cars with safety or quality problems. The 60 Minutes fable of runaway Audis wiped out the Audi business a decade back. The quality woes of Hyundai Motor Co. caused a sales collapse back then. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. regularly fight it out for the title of “Best Selling Car,” and their status as the Gold Standards for quality is usually credited.

That said, quality isn't everything. Plenty of cars sell well despite quality problems. The first Taurus was glitch-filled, but a terrific seller. The car was such a great looker that people didn't mind the problems.

I used to say that buying a Taurus was like marrying Marilyn Monroe.

If you married Marilyn Monroe she would never cook you breakfast.

If you married Marilyn Monroe she would never be on time for anything.

If you married Marilyn Monroe it would be argue argue argue, kvetch kvetch kvetch, fight fight fight all of the time.

But there were other compensations.

The early Chrysler Corp. minivans were problem filled. Another of my sons is a mechanic, and he said repairing Chrysler's minivans kept him in business. But shoddy as they were, he said, they were the only minivans around, and people loved them.

And Porsche? To quote James P. Womack, the production expert, Porsche had problems that were impossible to service because Porsche never worried about fixing them. “In consequence, a whole new skilled trade was created around the world: the Porsche mechanic.”

BMW and Mercedes-Benz had poor reputations: not only did things go wrong, but it cost a fortune to fix anything, and the guys in the backshop were uppity when you brought the cars back, too. Still, we wanted those cars.

The key to success in the automobile industry is not quality.

What's needed is design, design that makes the vehicles stand out, that makes heads turn on the street, that makes other drivers give the thumbs up.

Then comes engineering: great engines and transmissions that have power and speed along with fuel economy and emission control. Suspension systems that offer great handling and control.

We need great interiors that make your vehicle just fun to be in. All the leather in the world doesn't make it fun. We need color and design.

Quality? Of course. That's expected. You turn on a water faucet and expect the water to come out, but that's not why you buy a particular faucet. Safety? A must. Remember how Lee Iacocca ordered air bags into every vehicle when his competitors kept them as options? He made safety a selling point.

I suppose Detroit will go through a new surge of promising quality. Don't get excited about it. I've been hearing those promises for more than a quarter of a century. They don't mean anything, really. I have come to believe that the guys in the executive suite and the guys on the line really don't care. The best job, I believe, was done at Chrysler Corp. when Chairman Bob Eaton himself and manufacturing boss Dennis Pawley took the responsibility for improving Chrysler's quality. They did it. Don't believe me? Check Consumer Reports.

I don't believe the promises because the actions are quite opposite the promises. Example: General Motors Corp. has boring interiors with poor fit and finish. I know it, and they know it.

But instead of fixing them, GM is turning over the job to suppliers. A supplier will be in charge of the entire vehicle interior.

And you can be sure that the GM vice president of purchasing will be putting the screws on that supplier, pressuring him to cut prices every year. And so Tier 1 will screw down on Tier 2, and so on. They'll use cheaper material and get the parts put together in Third World villages.

In five years, GM will make another pledge to improve that problem quality while at the same time announcing a new plan to screw suppliers even more.

American quality probably never will be the Gold Standard, but it can be good enough. In fact, it is good enough. What we should shine in is engineering and design.

Like we used to.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.