Ford Motor Co. made progress in Consumer Reports magazine’s Annual Car Reliability Survey, but there still is work to be done, Bennie Fowler, vice president-Global Quality and Advanced and Manufacturing Engineering, says.

In the report released last week, Ford scored an average of 64 out of 100 in customer satisfaction and bested cross-town rivals Chrysler Group and General Motors Corp. with 51 and 57, respectively.

“I think changing (negative) public perception is one of our key challenges as an organization,” Fowler tells Ward’s. “And I think every time out we have to make sure our vehicles reflect what I’m saying, that’s key. When we talk to influential people in the industry, we have to get the word out to change the perception that is out there.”

Fowler concedes Ford in the past let quality slip, but says the auto maker’s quality levels today are on par with the best in the industry.

The quality gap is “almost negligible at this point,” he says.

“From my perspective we’re building the best cars and trucks we’ve ever built,” Fowler says. “We have a very rigorous manufacturing process. We’ve done a lot retraining on our floor and have placed a focus on Six Sigma since 1999.”

Overall, CR recommended 54% of Ford vehicles tested vs. 100% of Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s fleet and 85% of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles.

Since taking the helm of Ford late last year, President and CEO Alan Mulally has been open about his admiration for Toyota’s manufacturing system.

But while Fowler admits Ford benchmarks Toyota, he says there is nothing the Japanese auto maker does that is a mystery to Ford.

“When we look at Toyota’s production system and virtual tools, they may have different words to describe them (tools and processes), but we know what they are and we have those tools in our hands and that’s driving our improvement,” he says.

Ford now is paying particular attention to a vehicle’s interior quality, ride and handling and fuel-economy performance, which are top priorities on most consumers’ wish lists, Fowler says.

The auto maker also is working more closely with its various global subsidiaries and utilizing virtual tools to reduce costs and improve quality, he says.

Meanwhile, Fowler says the mass exodus of both hourly and salaried workers resulting from Ford’s Way Forward North American restructuring strategy won’t negatively impact its quality improvement efforts.

“It (workforce reduction) won’t be without challenges, but what we’ve benefited from is a great spirit of cooperation from the UAW (United Auto Workers union) and people in the plants,” he says. “And we’ve developed standards on how to go through the change and reduction process. It’s going to be a challenge but manageable.”