Vehicle buyers still can’t get no satisfaction

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Cars are still leaving dealerships despite multiple recalls that have put industry problems on the nation’s front pages, but customer satisfaction with automakers has dropped considerably in the past year, according to an index tracking consumer sentiment.

The report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index officially released Tuesday dropped the overall rating for cars and light vehicles by 1.2 percent, for a score of 82 on a 100-point scale. That’s the second straight annual decline.

It’s been a rough year for automakers in some ways. Millions of cars have been recalled, with the extensive problems at General Motors even leading to congressional hearings.

Just last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it had created an online search tool so drivers can easily use vehicle identification numbers to check whether specific vehicles are part of a recall. The agency also mandated manufacturers offer a similar capability on their own websites.

But auto website last month estimated industry sales were on pace to set a monthly rate not seen since July 2006. General Motors and Ford were both off the previous month’s pace while still up from a year earlier.

The customer satisfaction index, which comes out of the University of Michigan, collects data year round through interviews with about 70,000 consumers. The research is used to produce a national satisfaction score quarterly, with reports on different industries coming out monthly.

In the second quarter, overall consumer satisfaction dipped slightly but the 0.1 percent decline didn’t compare to the 0.8 percent plunge seen in the first quarter.

Index researchers make the case that the sentiment can be an indicator of consumers’ willingness to spend. At this point, they’re projecting consumer spending won’t grow more than 2.5 percent to 2.7 percent on annual basis.

Durable goods, such as automobiles, play a significant role in the overall economy. The report found 80 percent of 21 vehicle brands posted lower satisfaction scores than a year ago.

One factor might have been recalls. “Car owners who had at least one recall in the past year rate their vehicle 6 percent lower than those who did not experience a recall,” according to the ACSI analysis.

Foreign car companies continue to score higher than domestic, but the gap isn’t as large as it used to be, said Claes Fornell, founder of the index and a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, in a statement.

The only brands to post improved scores were Chevrolet, which rose 4 percent to score an 82, and Buick, up 1 percent to an 83.

Mercedes-Benz earned the highest score, at 86, although that is a 2 percent drop from a year ago. In second place, Subaru had an 85, following a 1 percent drop.

Lexus fell 3 percent to tie Volkswagen at 84. Toyota and Honda both fell 3 percent to 83, matching Buick’s score.

Chevrolet’s improvement came as GMC fell 4 percent, leaving the two brands tied with Kia at 82. Ford, Nissan, Hyundai and Chrysler all scored an 81.

Customers seemed unhappy with Cadillac, which dropped 6 percent to 80. Mazda and BMW tied that score, after both dropped 2 percent.

Jeep fell 1 percent to earn a 79, matching the score given to Audi, a newcomer to the list. Dodge’s 1 percent drop gave it a score of 78, while Acura earned the lowest score, with a 7 percent drop to 77.

On an industry basis, car companies rank relatively well overall. The top-scoring categories — the credit union industry and television and video players — scored an 85 overall, 3 points higher than cars and light vehicles. The lowest overall industry score belongs to Internet service providers, which last scored a 63.

Teresa F. Lindeman: or 412-263-2018.

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