Customer satisfaction for automakers holds steady; Lincoln leads

(August 23, 2012) ANN ARBOR, Mich. —Customer satisfaction at the national level is exactly where it stood at the start of 2012, and as far back as two years ago, according to a report released today by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). In the second quarter of 2012, aggregate customer satisfaction stayed flat at 75.9 on a 0 to 100 scale, which won’t help revive consumer spending or the sluggish economy at large.

“The good news is that customer satisfaction is not contracting and that it remains at a generally high level,” says Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and author of The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference.

“While the U.S. economy is less likely to slip back into recession, its recovery will not speed up much either. If anxiety about the economy abated and overall customer satisfaction improved, this would lead to more demand, more household spending, and a quicker recovery.”

As in previous years, luxury brands have the upper hand when it comes to pleasing customers. Lincoln recaptured the industry lead with a 5% gain to 90. The downside for Lincoln is that high satisfaction may reflect a loyal, but dwindling, customer base.

Toyota’s Lexus followed closely in second place at 89, up 2% from its industry-leading score last year. Likewise, GM’s Buick nameplate gained 2% to 87, while Cadillac dipped 1% to 86. Germany’s BMW rebounded from a sharp decline a year ago by jumping 4% to tie Cadillac at 86. BMW regained its customer satisfaction prowess at the same time as the company achieves its second-best-ever operating profit.

Subaru’s score of 87 is the lone exception to luxury-plate dominance this year. The Japanese automaker rejoined the ACSI in 2012 after increasing its market share and beats its historic measures by 4 points or more.

Several automakers cluster at—or within 1 point of—the industry average of 84. The above-average group at 85 includes Hyundai (+2), Mercedes-Benz (-1%), Toyota (-2%), and Volkswagen (+1%). Those just below average at 83 are Ford (-1%), Honda (-2%), Jeep (+5%), and Nissan (-1%). GM’s Chevrolet rises 2% to match the average at 84. The ACSI loss for Toyota’s namesake brand is enough to strip away its number-one title from 2011, while Honda’s downturn places it below average for the first time in ACSI history.

“The difference between the industry’s high marks for customer satisfaction in 2012 versus 2009 is that customers are responding to better quality rather than price promotions,” says Fornell. “Overall industry sales are up compared to a year ago despite higher prices. An ongoing commitment to quality seems like a workable formula for sustaining both customer satisfaction and sales growth.”

While domestic nameplates showed the greatest improvement overall, they continue to trail both European and Asian cars. Among the U.S. automakers, Ford continues to hold the lead at 86 (+1%), followed by an unchanged General Motors at 84. Chrysler stays in last place overall, but makes the most progress in customer satisfaction with a 4% surge to 81.

While Ford and GM showed a mixture of gains and declines across their nameplates, all three Chrysler brands moved forward in 2012. The company’s Dodge and Chrysler nameplates improved 3% to 81 and 78, respectively, while Jeep accelerated 5% to 83—an all-time high. This rise in customer satisfaction marked a strong resurgence for Chrysler, which also is reflected in consumer demand. Chrysler’s year-to-date sales are up 28%, outpacing Ford and GM’s growth of 5% and 3%, respectively.

Nevertheless, Chrysler continued to play catch up in the overall ACSI rankings for the industry. Among its three brands, none meets or exceeds the industry average for customer satisfaction. Additionally, both Dodge and Chrysler continue to hug the bottom of the industry, posting the third-worst and worst scores this year. Sandwiched between the two, GM’s GMC product line tumbles 4% to 80.

Two Asian carmakers are nestled among the Chrysler brands at the low end of the industry list: Mazda and Kia at 82. While Mazda zooms up 4% this year to match its all-time ACSI high, the company continues to be a below-average performer compared with other brands.