Hugh Pickens writes writes "AP reports that global competition is squeezing lemons out of the market and forcing automakers to improve the quality and reliability of their vehicles so with few exceptions, cars are so close on reliability that it's getting harder for companies to charge a premium. "We don't have total clunkers like we used to," says Dave Sargent, automotive vice president with J.D. Power. In 1998, J.D. Power and Associates found an industry average of 278 problems per 100 vehicles but this year, the number fell to 132. In 1998, the most reliable car had 92 problems per 100 vehicles, while the least reliable had 517, a gap of 425 but this year the gap closed to 284 problems. It wasn't always like this. In the 1990s, Honda and Toyota dominated in quality, especially in the key American market for small and midsize cars. Around 2006, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were heading into financial trouble and shifted research dollars from trucks to cars after years of neglect and spent more on engineering and parts to close the gap. Meanwhile Toyota's reputation was tarnished by a series of safety recalls, and Honda played conservative with new models that looked similar to the old ones. Now it's "very hard to find products that aren't good anymore," says Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the Edmunds.com automotive website. "In safety, performance and quality, the differences just don't have material impact.""