Which Auto Brands Are Most Satisfying?

How many of us want to add hassles to our lives? Certainly not car buyers, according to the recently released J.D. Power and Associates 2001 Sales Satisfaction StudySM. The survey of new-vehicle buyers confirmed that consumers continue to prefer a hassle-free new-vehicle sales experience that features non-negotiable retail pricing, by naming General Motors' Saturn as the top brand in providing satisfaction during the selling process.

Saturn is the only automotive brand whose policy is to provide consumers with non-negotiable vehicle pricing. The marque, which is experiencing rather lackluster sales due to an aging lineup of vehicles, came out on top of the study's satisfaction index for the second consecutive year. It has been a perennial high finisher in the J.D. Power and Associates Sales Satisfaction studies since it came into the market slightly over a decade ago.

"This makes it clear that the pricing model established by Saturn retailers works very effectively for its customers," said Chris Denove, a partner at J.D. Power and Associates. "What makes Saturn's performance so exceptional is that it achieves this high level of sales satisfaction with non-luxury vehicles."

Saturn's rise to the top of the charts was a bit of an anomaly, because it is not a purveyor of luxury cars. Ten of the top 12 brands in the sales satisfaction index sell luxury vehicles. Another GM division, Cadillac, bested Lexus for second place on the list. Toyota's Lexus division, which tied with Cadillac for second last year, slipped very slightly to third.

"Luxury dealers generate higher customer satisfaction scores because they provide an environment with less pressure and sell to more sophisticated customers who feel empowered when working with dealers," said Denove. "Saturn buyers, by comparison, tend to be less trustful of dealers, which makes their high satisfaction scores especially impressive."

Nissan's Infiniti luxury division placed fourth in the study; Jaguar was fifth and Lincoln was sixth. Buick, the only other non-luxury brand in the top 10, finished in seventh place; Mercedes-Benz was eighth; Land Rover ninth and Volvo 10th.

Auto dealers continue to get a bad rap in the general press, but the study proved once again that the way to buyers' hearts is through honesty and respect. "Overwhelmingly, and contrary to popular belief, most buyers believe that their selling dealer is honest and courteous," said Denove.

The study, now in its 15th year, revealed that new-vehicle buyers overall are very satisfied with the dealers who sold them their vehicles, giving them an average rating of 8.5 out of a possible 10. The findings suggest that hard-sell tactics still employed by some dealers could backfire. This is particularly important for vehicle manufacturers to understand, because more than one million shoppers each year decide not to buy a particular vehicle make simply because they didn't like the way they were treated by the dealer when they walked into the showroom.

While many car buyers are now demanding respect, they certainly haven't given up their search for the best price. The survey found the biggest reason people choose one dealer over another is dollars. According to the study, one-half of all buyers say it is more important to find a dealer with low prices than one that provides friendly customer service.

Friendly service remains important, though, because the average customer spends nearly three hours at their selling dealer completing the purchase process. Moving that process forward quickly is directly linked to satisfaction. In particular, buyers are frustrated with wasted time, such as waiting to enter the business office to finalize the paperwork.

The Sales Satisfaction Study, which was conducted in April and May this year, is based on more than 46,000 responses from buyers and lessees of 2000 and 2001 model cars and light trucks.

Luigi Fraschini, who calls Cleveland home, is a frequent contributor to Driving Today.