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Money Buys Driving Happiness

Owners Rank Top-End Models Highest in AutoPacific Survey


Buyers of luxury cars and top-end sport-utility vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and the Lincoln Navigator, are happier with their vehicles than other new car owners, while Kia and Hyundai buyers are the least satisfied shoppers, according to a new rating system unveiled Wednesday by AutoPacific Inc.

The Santa Ana consulting firm's finding that pickup truck and sport-utility buyers are among the most satisfied owners is likely to add fuel to a growing debate over SUVs, pickups and minivans. While they account for more than 40% of all new vehicles sold, they are coming under criticism for poor fuel economy and the damage they can inflict in collisions with cars.

The survey also demonstrated that auto dealers can contribute significantly to buyer satisfaction. For example, Saturn, which stresses service and no-pressure selling, finished fifth of 37 car brands in overall satisfaction in the AutoPacific rankings. But the models dropped to 20th place when dealership and pricing factors were removed and buyers rated only their satisfaction with the vehicle itself.

Unlike other ratings such as the Initial Quality Survey by J.D. Power & Associates, AutoPacific's Vehicle Satisfaction Score leans heavily on car buyers' passion for the product.

Thus, the always reliable Honda line finished in the middle of the pack, behind brands like Volkswagen and Jaguar that have not been strong finishers in quality surveys but attract very enthusiastic buyers.

All else being equal, said AutoPacific president George Peterson, "a basic transportation car won't do as well as a car with a strong image" in the Santa Ana-based company's overall ratings.

Peterson, who developed the ratings for internal use several years ago, said he decided to make them public "to provide car buyers an idea of how satisfying the various models are, and to give car makers an idea of what pushes people's buttons."

He acknowledged that the ratings, if they catch on, could also help bolster his company's visibility.

Auto makers who score well in such ratings "use them to advertise," said Toyota spokesman Joe Tetherow. "And they can help show you where you need to improve," he said. Toyota's luxury line of Lexus vehicles topped the AutoPacific rankings, while the Toyota line placed 23rd--well into the bottom half of the list.

Unlike ratings industry leader J.D. Powers, which sells its rankings to car makers and doesn't publish the low scores, AutoPacific's scores are free and unabridged. "We want it all to be straightforward," Peterson says.

AutoPacific based its rankings on responses from 26,000 car buyers to 50 separate questions about the cars they purchased, the financing programs and the dealerships they used.

In addition to asking buyers to rate the overall quality of the vehicle and their overall satisfaction with it, the questionnaire sought ratings of everything from cup holder design to the image the vehicle projects.

For the overall ratings, scores from the vehicle-only portion of the survey are combined with ratings of such other factors as the dealership's general appearance, the salesperson's attitude, the car warranty and the monthly payments.

In most cases, the various brands' performance did not vary much in the two rankings. Saturn was the major exception, garnering 708 of 1,000 possible points in the overall satisfaction score but landing only 640 when judged on product attributes alone.

And the range of scores in the survey was not huge. Lexus, the top-ranked brand, got an overall score of 728 points while Kia, which placed last, received an overall score of 553 points. The industry average was 643 points.

Joining Kia, Hyundai, Suzuki and other small and mid-sized import brands in the below-average rankings were industry sales giants Toyota, 639 points; Ford, 635 points, and Chevrolet, 632 points (tying with Nissan).

German performance car maker Porsche received only 618 points in the overall ratings, a sign that consumers weren't too impressed with its dealers or financing features. But the company finished with an above-average 640 points when buyers rated only the product.

The top five vehicles in the overall ratings were the Mercedes-Benz sport-utility, the Lexus LS400 sedan, the Mercedes Benz S-Class sedans, the Cadillac Seville sedan and the Mercedes-Benz CLK coupe.

The bottom five, of 184 models rated, were the Mazda Miata, (Mazda has introduced an all-new version since the study was done); the Hyundai Accent, the Ford Econoline van, the Chevrolet Metro subcompact and, bringing up the rear, the Isuzu Hombre compact pickup.


New Rating System

Santa Ana-based AutoPacific's first satisfaction survey of new automobile owners shows imports making the biggest mark at both ends of the scale. How 1998 domestic and imported vehicles rank with consumers:

VEHICLE SATISFACTION SCORE: (Opinions on vehicle as well as dealership and customer service)

Top Ten


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