Ford finishes first among American automakers in new automobile customer satisfaction survey

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Vehicle owners say both product and service quality have improved for the auto industry

If you hear some champagne glasses clinking, you might find your local car dealer raising a toast. On Tuesday, the 2018 ACSI Automobile Report was released showing a 1.2 percent uptick in customer satisfaction with automobiles and light vehicles -- coming in with a total score of 82 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s scale of 0-100.

Topping the chart’s segments are Ford, Volvo, Lexus, and Subaru.

With a score of 81, Ford took over GM’s first place among U.S. automakers as GM’s point total dipped to 80. Fiat Chrysler got a small bump up to 78 and came in third.

In the tug of war for best luxury automaker, Volvo and Lexus came to a draw for first place.

Among mass-market vehicles, it’s all Subaru with a score of 84, inching out Toyota, the Camry maker, whose satisfaction fell three points and put the brand in a tie for second place with Honda, which improved two points to 83.

American, European, or Asian?

Overall, the European car makers took home the trophy for highest owner satisfaction with a total score of 82, with Japanese and Korean automakers following closely behind with an 81. U.S. auto giants continue to be dwarfed by their international competitors. The Americans lost ground for the second straight year and placed last with a score of 79.

Taking a deep dive into the report, individual company performance -- including the “nameplates” within each company -- is all over the place.

Case in point is Ford, which “appears to have learned lessons from its experience with recalls; for most Ford drivers, a recall had no adverse impact on satisfaction. Moreover, Ford’s Lincoln nameplate even registers higher satisfaction for customers who experienced a recall,” according to the report authors.

What are car owners most satisfied with?

The survey found that both product and service were the key factors in making its customers happy, a metric that was largely the result of better value.

“Car owners are often highly satisfied—they’ve kicked the tires enough times that they’re happy with their decision when they buy,” said David VanAmburg, Managing Director at ACSI.

“But this year’s improvements might not last. Proposed tariffs on auto imports add to the pressure of rising metal costs for both international automakers and American-made cars using foreign parts. We’ll be watching how the threat of higher prices affects customer satisfaction in the coming year.”

Among mass-market cars, the satisfaction levels didn’t change much. Driving performance is up 1 percent to 86. Vehicle safety and comfort are unchanged. Drivers gave slightly lower marks for the look of exteriors (84), but interiors were unaffected (83). Gas mileage trailed the other factors with a score of 78.

David VanAmburg, managing director at ACSI, says that consumers are putting more thought into their vehicle choice.

"The average consumer puts a higher degree of thought and research into buying a car than say groceries. Because it's not typically an impulse purchase, that could be a contributing factor to the automobile industry's higher satisfaction overall," he said. 

"When you consider other factors, like a more efficient recall process, that makes this year's automobile measurement a success over last year. This industry is the fourth highest we measure in terms of customer satisfaction, so generally car buyers seem to be pleased with their wheels."

Like a phoenix, here comes Volkswagen

As is the case with satisfaction surveys, there’s always winners and losers. Thanks to changes such as doubling the length of its warranties and going for the brass ring of best fuel economy, VW was one of those winners. The German auto brand showed up as one of the “most improved mass-market cars,” gaining some 4 percent for a total score of 82.

ACSI points to Volkswagen's SUVs as the fulcrum of the automaker’s satisfaction improvement with consumers, a category segment where the automaker is making some respectable headway.

Who were the losers? GMC took a 5 percent hit, Hyundai and Kia fell 4 percent, and both Mazda and Chevrolet were down 2 percent. Chrysler brought up the rear, dropping 6 percentage points to 74.

Look out luxury, here comes the Swedes

Gaining 4 percent for a total ACSI score of 85, Volvo showed up as the big winner among luxury vehicles, and tied Lexus (down 1 percent) for first place. The $1.1 billion capital infusion Volvo gave its U.S. operations is apparently paying off. The 85 was a new high water mark for Volvo, qualifying it as the “most improved luxury car of 2018.”

Lincoln is the top-rated U.S. luxury model, up a percentage point to 84, followed by Audi at 83. Mercedes-Benz is still seeing recalls in its rearview mirror which knocked their satisfaction score down retreats 2 percent to 82. That puts Mercedes in a tie with Cadillac and BMW.

The 2018 ACSI Automobile Report 2018 was drawn from 4,649 customer surveys collected between August 11, 2017 and July 31, 2018.

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