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Japanese cars rank at top of German consumer survey

Toyota and its Lexus unit take first place in six of the seven categories. Nissan takes the remaining top spot.

October 30, 2002|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Familiarity, it seems, does breed a bit of contempt.

Auto buyers in the U.S. rarely rate domestic vehicles at the top of the heap in consumer satisfaction surveys, preferring instead benchmark makes such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

It turns out that car owners in Germany don't like their domestics much either.

They seem to prefer Japanese cars, rating them higher than most European makes in quality and reliability in J.D. Power & Associates' inaugural German consumer satisfaction index survey.

When owners' satisfaction with their cars' looks and reliability were equal, the deciding factor seemed to be the ability of a brand's dealers to keep customers happy after selling them a vehicle.

BMW was the home team's best performer, with a third-place finish behind Toyota and Mazda and just ahead of Honda. Porsche finished fifth and Mercedes-Benz finished eighth. Daihatsu, a Toyota-owned Japanese brand that specializes in small cars, scored better than Mercedes. So did Subaru.

Toyota and its Lexus unit, in fact, took first-place honors in six of the seven categories in which the Power organization slots cars sold in Germany. Japan's Nissan took the remaining top spot in the survey of 15,000 car owners who rated their 2- to 3-year-old cars based on their experiences with the vehicle, the dealership and the overall cost of operation.

The names of car owners aren't readily available in Germany as they are in the U.S. The Power organization had to use sources other than official government records to build a mailing list for soliciting survey responses, a spokesman said, adding that the Westlake Village-based market research company doesn't believe its findings are compromised.

Many of the cars sold in Europe also are quite different from their counterparts for the U.S. market, so direct comparisons between the German survey and Power's findings in similar U.S. studies don't work.

Nissan's Maxima sedan, for instance, won for executive luxury car -- not a slot in which a Maxima could comfortably slip in the U.S. BMW sells far more small cars in Germany than in the U.S., as does Mercedes-Benz. And the Lexus IS200 that took first-place honors in the upper-medium category, though similar to the IS300 sold in the U.S., comes with a smaller 2.0-liter engine that is too anemic to win hearts in the land of the muscle car.

Still, Power's chief European analyst, Dave Sargent, said European consumers rate their cars in the satisfaction survey on the same benchmarks that U.S. consumers use: quality and reliability come first, followed by the vehicle's appeal -- design, features and performance. Dealer service ranks third in importance, with cost of operation -- a category that looks at fuel efficiency, repairs and maintenance -- the last of the quartet.

The survey results seem to show that "even in Germany, where there is a national pride in German autos, there is real appreciation that the Japanese are building some seriously great machinery, especially in their luxury brands," said auto industry consultant Gordon Wangers, president of AMCI, a Vista, Calif.-based market research firm.

Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision, an auto market research and consulting firm headquartered in La Jolla, points out that Germans still buy far more German cars than Japanese brands and said he doesn't believe it would be accurate to use the Power survey to claim that Toyota and other Japanese carmakers are poised to seize a huge share of that market.

But the findings "are surprising," he said, adding that his company's studies show that despite some quality issues with the M-Class sport utility in the U.S., Mercedes-Benz still is "at the top of the list" of brands that car buyers say they can trust.

Still, Mercedes' anemic performance in its homeland could speak volumes, especially as the German car brand did even worse in Power's U.S. consumer satisfaction survey published earlier this year.

In that study, Mercedes-Benz -- which sells only luxury cars in the U.S. -- finished below the industry average of 843 points. That was the cutoff mark below which Power won't issue rankings.

The German study showed "a wide gap exists between the vehicles that give high levels of satisfaction to their owners and those that do not, which implies that there is room for significant industry improvement," Sargent said.

That gap of 63 points between top finisher and industry average was one point less than the gap Power found in the U.S.

The German study also shows that in Germany, at least, it isn't necessary to buy an expensive car to have a satisfying ownership experience, he said.

Even in the U.S. study, in which nine of the top 10 vehicles were luxury or near-luxury brands, a middle-of-the-road marque -- Saturn -- finished first. GM's import fighter fared well largely on the strength of customers' satisfaction with the dealerships.

The leading brands in each of the four main areas of the German customer satisfaction survey were Toyota for vehicle quality and reliability; BMW for vehicle appeal; Toyota again for dealer service; and Daihatsu for ownership cost.*

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John O'Dell writes about the auto industry for Highway 1 and the Business section. E-mail: john.odell@latimes .com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Top-ranked

The J.D. Power & Associates German consumer satisfaction index study covered 32 vehicle brands and 132 models in seven segments. The top-ranked model in each category:

Small car: Toyota Yaris

Lower-medium (priced) car: Toyota Corolla

Upper-medium car: Lexus IS200

Executive/luxury car: Nissan Maxima

Sports car: Toyota Celica

SUV: Toyota RAV4

Compact van: Toyota Picnic

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