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Auto Industry Satisfaction Is Down, but U.S. Brands Stable

DETROIT – Americans’ satisfaction with domestic automobiles has stabilized, and in a few cases climbed, despite an overall decline for the industry over the past 18 months, according to an annual report released today by the American Customer Satisfaction Index reported on by Automotive News.

Overall, automobile satisfaction dipped from an all-time industry high of 84 in 2009 to 82 this year on ACSI’s 0-100 scale.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is based at the University of Michigan, is designed to measure the quality of products and services available to U.S. consumers.

Lincoln-Mercury and Buick topped the list for the first time ever. Chrysler, however, continues to struggle, with two of its three divisions — Dodge and Jeep — at the bottom. VW, Chevrolet, Kia and Mazda also scored below the industry average.

Overall, 14 of the 19 biggest brands dropped in customer satisfaction over the past year. Of the few nameplates that held steady or improved, Nissan made the biggest stride, up 4 points, to match the industry average at 82.

GMC experienced a smaller improvement, up 2 points to 84.

“It was not long ago when Detroit’s products were clustered at the bottom of the industry,” Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI and author of The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference, said in a statement.

Even though satisfaction with most domestic and foreign automakers declined in 2010, U.S. brands showed the smallest drop, while Japanese and Korean brands fell the most, putting U.S. automakers slightly ahead of Asian rivals for the first time since 2000, the ACSI said.

Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division topped the list, up 1 point to 89 — its highest score ever. It was followed by Buick — unchanged at 88.

Behind Lincoln and Buick were BMW, off 1 point; Mercedes-Benz, unchanged; and Cadillac, down 3 points, all tied at 86.

A year ago, in the middle of the recession, generous discounts and the government’s cash for clunkers program helped many auto brands post record levels of satisfaction with U.S. consumers. But the gains have not been sustained.

Several automakers fell from all-time highs set in 2009: Honda, off 4 points to 84; Hyundai, down 3 points to 82; Ford, off 1 point to 82; Volkswagen, down 5 points to 81; and Chevrolet, off 3 points to 80, all dropped this year. Cadillac, Lexus, Chrysler and Dodge also declined from record scores last year.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s well publicized recalls had a bigger effect on its Lexus brand than on the Toyota brand, the survey found.

Lexus dropped 4 points to 85, but Toyota fell only half as much, falling 2 points to 84.

At Lexus, recalls impacted a greater proportion of recent Lexus owners and touched nearly every Lexus model because of problems that included fuel leaks, stalling engines and rollover risks.

The ACSI survey is conducted by phone. Each company’s score is derived from 250 interviews with respondents aged 18 to 84.

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