General Motors Corp. and several European auto makers gained ground on Japanese companies in customer satisfaction this past year, but Ford declined and Chrysler held steady, according to a widely watched survey released Tuesday.
GM beat the industry average in the J.D. Powers & Associates index of customer satisfaction--the first American auto maker to do so since the survey began in 1981. Analysts attributed GM's progress to the continuing success of its Saturn line and a concerted effort to upgrade dealership service.
Asian auto makers posted an average score of 140, unchanged from last year. However, the customer handling component of their score dropped, primarily because second-tier auto makers Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Mazda posted relatively poor results, said J. David Power III, president of the Agoura Hills-based market research company.
European auto makers--thanks to significant improvements in quality and dealership service by Volkswagen, Volvo and BMW--finished with an average index score of 139, Power said. That was significantly improved from their year-earlier score of 130. The European score was also helped by the withdrawal from the U.S. market of past low-scorers Yugo, Renault, Peugeot and Sterling.
Detroit's Big Three auto makers averaged a score of 132, the same as last year but up from only 94 in 1986. General Motors posted an overall average score of 136, one point above the industrywide average and up two points from last year. Ford Motor Co.'s score of 125 was off six points from last year, while Chrysler Corp. remained the same at 128.
"Looking back over the past eight years, we can see how the customer satisfaction dominance of the Asians has been eroding," Power said. "This is where the future battles will be won or lost."
Ironically, strong sales probably hurt customer satisfaction results at Chrysler and Ford, Power said. With high sales volumes, dealers have a harder time delivering high-quality service to customers.
"Last year Ford made significant improvements, and to retain that kind of momentum is very difficult," Power said. "About the only exception to that is Toyota, and they have been working at it for 25 years."
The rankings are based on surveys of 25,000 new car buyers who were asked to rate how happy they were with repairs and reliability and how they were treated by auto dealers in the first year they owned their cars.
For the third year in a row, Lexus, Infiniti and Saturn took the top three prizes. Lexus and Infiniti, the luxury car lines of Toyota and Nissan, scored well above the rest of the pack, with 176 points and 171 points, respectively.
Saturn was a distant third at 155, followed by Acura and Audi.
Third-ranked Saturn and 10th-ranked Cadillac in particular helped propel GM, but customer service improvements among all GM nameplates were reflected in the score, analysts said.
"GM has put a lot of focus in the past year to 18 months in terms of improving customer satisfaction," said Chris Cedergren, senior vice president with AutoPacific Group, an auto marketing consulting firm in Thousand Oaks. "Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick and even Chevrolet are putting more focus on trying to keep their buyer base happy, and it appears that based on these results, those efforts are beginning to bear fruit."
For example, GM has taken a cue from Lexus and eliminated much of the price haggling that traditionally plagues car buyers. Saturn highlights its non-negotiable prices in its advertising.
"There's been a movement into a more honest relationship between the customer and the dealer," one analyst said. "With less haggling, the relationship is less antagonistic."
A similar report based on a survey of 10,000 new owners of minivans, pickups and sport utility vehicles is expected to be released today. Industry sources said it shows Chrysler and Toyota tied for the top position.
The Top 10
Here are the Top 10 car lines in the J.D. Powers customer satisfaction index.
Make Ranking 1 Lexus 176 2 Infiniti 171 3 Saturn 155 4 Acura 150 5 Audi 148 6 Toyota 146 7 Honda 145 8 Lincoln 144 Tie Volvo 144 9 Cadillac 143 Tie Jaguar 143 10 Buick 141 Tie Mercedes 141 Industry average 135
Source: J.D. Powers & Associates
The Satisfaction Factor
Ratings are based on a survey of 25,000 buyers of new cars, who ranked their satisfaction with repairs and reliability and how dealers treated them during the first year of ownership.
DOMESTIC RANKINGS Saturn: 155 Lincoln: 144 Cadillac: 143 Buick: 141 Oldsmobile: 137 Mercury: 133 Plymouth: 133 Chevrolet: 132 Chrysler: 132 Pontiac: 127 Dodge: 126 Ford: 120 Geo: 118 Eagle: 116
ASIAN RANKINGS Lexus: 176 Infiniti: 171 Acura: 150 Toyota: 146 Honda: 145 Subaru: 139 Nissan: 132 Mitsubishi: 126 Mazda: 119 Hyundai: 110 Suzuki: 108
EUROPEAN RANKINGS Audi: 148 Volvo: 144 Jaguar: 143 Mercedes-Benz: 141 Saab: 140 BMW: 138 Volkswagen: 120
1994 industry average: 135
Note: Alfa Romeo, Isuzu and Porsche are not shown due to insufficient sampling.
Source: J.D. Powers & Associates 1993-94 Car Customer Satisfaction Study