Americans' satisfaction with their new cars and trucks has slipped over a percentage point from last year -- when the industry numbers were at an all-time high -- but imports can probably sleep better than domestics. The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), in its 2013 study on the auto vertical, reports that, industry-wide slippage notwithstanding, European and Asian brands are increasing the distance between themselves and domestic brands. The gap is at its widest in five years.
According to the study, whose results were derived from surveys of over 4,000 U.S. consumers this year, Mercedes-Benz is best at making buyers happy. Its scores leaped 4% this year over last, putting it at the top of the list. Although Toyota's Lexus division dropped 2%, it is still number two, followed by Subaru, Toyota, and Honda, the latter seeing a much-needed improvement of 4% versus last year.
The study found that only 26% of the individual auto brands improved, while 53% declined and 21% remain unchanged. Three of the nine Asian brands saw lower scores versus last year, as did two of three European brands. But five of eight domestic nameplates are down compared to a year ago and only two domestic nameplates -- Cadillac and GMC -- joined six others in the above-industry-average position. And the bottom entries are domestic: Jeep, Dodge, and Chevrolet.
Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and chairman, says that the overall lower numbers may have something to do with the fact that factories are running at capacity to feed pent-up demand (the industry sales numbers have been red-lining for months for some nameplates). “Sales have been stronger overall for cars, and for domestics especially. What's happening now is that they are trying to catch up with supply, and some plants are running 24/7," he says. Imports, he adds, "have always been better at adjusting supply to demand, and we are seeing that again."
Obviously, dissatisfaction with the purchase and ownership experience will cool a customer’s ardor when it comes to returning to that store and that model in the future, but it will also have a dark influence over others' purchase decisions, thanks to the Internet-fueled word-of-mouth, he notes.
Fornell points out that the ACSI scores also reflect dealership experience. Thus, automakers should be careful about pressuring dealers experiencing soft sales to improve numbers by any means necessary, since poor performance may reflect a bad sales environment. The more pressure automakers put on dealers to boost volume, the more likely the showroom will feel like a pressure-cooker for consumers, too, he notes.