U.S. Auto Quality Crushed Again as Trend Toward Imports Returns

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After many years of quality improvement, according to most industry research, U.S. car companies apparently have fallen back into old habits. New data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows that cars made by non-U.S. manufacturers have eclipsed those of the Big Three in terms of how consumers view the quality of their vehicles.

The new survey puts Mercedes (with a score of 88 out of 100) and Toyota Motor Corp.’s (NYSE: TM) luxury brand Lexus (87) at the top of the list, which is not unusual based on results from other research studies. Toyota (86) and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (NYSE: HMC) (86), also near the top, have moved back up on most lists after a period in which American cars had caught or even passed them in polls. Toyota’s demise may have been caused by recalls that hit millions of its cars. The public apparently has forgotten that.

Among the Big Three, the worst news was for Chrysler, which usually underperforms in studies from research firms like J.D. Power. Its Jeep (80) and Dodge (79) units were in the cellar, with General Motors Co.’s (NYSE: GM) biggest division — Chevrolet (79) — its only car brand with them. The blow is particularly bad for GM because Chevy represents such a large portion of its sales.

Kia and Hyundai, the South Korean stablemates, posted scores that may indicate that the scandal over how they calculated mpg and the changes they had to make after the federal government caught them continue to hurt each brand. Kia’s score of 82 put it very near the bottom. Hyundai posted the same score.

ACSI officials made two negative comment about Detroit:

Although the drop in customer satisfaction affects most automakers, Detroit is losing ground to imports. The customer satisfaction gap relative to imports is now the widest in five years. As recently as 2010, Asian and domestics were tied in customer satisfaction, but Asian carmakers have now reestablished a significant advantage.

And:

U.S. automakers may be stretched too thin, ramping up production to meet rising demand. This becomes problematic once demand slackens, making further sales growth more challenging unless customer satisfaction improves. At more than full capacity, it is not unexpected that quality may give way to quantity.

American car companies have weak quality control when they have to meet customer demand, a damning comment.

As for the entire industry:

Customer satisfaction with automobiles and light vehicles declines following back-to-back years of improvement, falling 1.2% to an ACSI benchmark of 83. The slide comes at a time when sales of both domestic and import brands are surging. The industry’s sales growth is most likely due to pent-up demand coupled with inexpensive financing and a resurgence in dealer incentives.

Company                                                        2012         2013      % Change
Automobiles & Light Vehicles                       84                  83            -1.2%
Mercedes-Benz (Daimler)                             85                  88                4%
Lexus (Toyota)                                                  89                  87               -2%
Subaru                                                                87                  86               -1%
Toyota (Toyota)                                                85                   86                1%
Honda                                                                 83                   86                4%
Cadillac (GM)                                                    86                   85               -1%
GMC (GM)                                                          80                  85                 6%
Volkswagen                                                       85                   84                -1%
Acura (Honda)                                                 NM                  83                 NA
Ford (Ford)                                                         83                  83                  0%
Nissan                                                                 83                  83                  0%
Chrysler (Chrysler)                                          78                   83                  6%
Buick (GM)                                                         87                   82                 -6%
BMW                                                                   86                   82                 -5%
Hyundai                                                              85                   82                 -4%
Kia                                                                        82                   82                  0%
Mazda                                                                 82                   82                  0%
All Others                                                           82                   81                 -1%
Jeep (Chrysler)                                                  83                   80                 -4%
Chevrolet (GM)                                                 84                   79                 -6%
Dodge (Chrysler)                                              81                   79                 -2%

Methodology: The August 2013 ACSI report on automobiles is based on interviews with 4,078 customers, chosen at random and contacted via telephone and email between April 6 and May 22, 2013. Customers were asked to evaluate their recent purchase and experiences with automobiles manufactured by the largest companies in terms of market share, plus an aggregate category consisting of “all other” and thus smaller auto nameplates.

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