Lincoln, Honda, Toyota, BMW are tops in customer satisfaction (Acura, VW not so much)

August 23, 2016

Over the past few years, car owners have become increasingly dissatisfied with their vehicles. But a new study from the American Customer Satisfaction Index suggests that for most automakers, consumer sentiment has made a turn for the better. 

ACSI's 2016 Automobile Report polled 3,776 auto customers, asking them to evaluate their experiences with a wide range of car brands, using a scale of 0 (not at all satisfied) to 100 (over the moon). Most of the questions consumers were asked had to do with a car's design or performance--how it looked on the inside and outside, how it handled on the road, and so on. However, there were a couple of questions that related more directly to the buying experience, like how easy the automaker's website was to navigate and how pleased respondents were with their warranties.

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The 2015 ACSI survey saw continued declines in satisfaction, which was attributed to several years of high-profile recalls. In 2016, however, the average ACSI score climbed for the first time since 2012. On ACSI's 100-point scale, the average score in 2016 is 82, up 3.8 percent from last year.

Findings

What's especially interesting about the 2016 ACSI Automobile Report is the way that mass-market brands stack up to their luxury siblings. In many other surveys--whether they concern satisfaction with cars, satisfaction with the buying experience, or the passion that vehicles inspire in their owners--luxury vehicles often take the top spots, with mass-market brands bringing up the rear.

But the 2016 Automobile Report shows a fairly even split at both ends of the chart. As you can see above, Ford's luxury marque, Lincoln took top honors in this year's survey, earning 87 points (up five percent from last year). However, Honda was right on its tail, with a score of 86 (up eight percent). Toyota and BMW tied for the number three spot, with 85 points each (both up four percent).

This trend could continue, as luxury and mass-market automakers roll out similar upgrades, particularly those focused on safety, self-driving, and infotainment. ACSI Chairman Claes Fornell notes that "The rise of mass-market vehicles may well be at the expense of luxury brands in the sense that buyers now see little differentiation between luxury cars and regular ones. If there is little difference, why pay more? Exclusivity may not be enough."

At the very bottom of this year's rankings was Acura, which has suffered on other surveys as of late. Its score of 76 represented a tumble of eight percent from last year. 

Volkswagen didn't fare much better, with a score of 78. That was three percent lower than in 2015, and its scores could fall much further, given the ongoing Dieselgate scandal. ACSI's David VanAmburg explains: "The combination of fines and fallen stock price are a big hit to Volkswagen’s finances, but it may prove even harder to recover from the reputational hit the company will take for deceiving customers and the general public. Many customers or would-be customers could be turned-off of VW for life and it’s hard to put a value on that."

What's also interesting is that increased satisfaction among U.S. brands has eroded some consumer sentiment that once saw Asian marques as superior. On average, Asian and European brands scored 82 points on the ACSI survey, while Detroit was right behind, at 81 points. Among domestic marques, Ford held the lead, with an average score of 84 points, GM was in the middle with 81, and Fiat Chrysler brought up the rear with 78.

P.S. 

ACSI's study focused on the largest automakers doing business in the U.S., based on market share. That left out a number of smaller brands, including well-known, well-loved ones like Porsche and Tesla. Because they have less representation in the market, consumer familiarity with those brands is more limited, meaning that there's a smaller amount of survey data and a greater chance that scores could be distorted and skew up or down.

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