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Car Buyer Satisfaction Hits An All-Time High

CBS Detroit -- Customer satisfaction with vehicle purchases has hit an all-time high, tying a mark set back in 2009.

"The difference between the industry's high marks for customer satisfaction in 2012 versus 2009 is that customers are responding to better quality rather than price promotions," says Claes Fornell, founder of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. "Overall industry sales are up compared to a year ago despite higher prices. An ongoing commitment to quality seems like a workable formula for sustaining both customer satisfaction and sales growth."

The 2009 peak came amid "Cash for Clunkers" and, says ACSI General Manager David Van Amburg, reflected a happiness with good deals. This time around, he says it's driven by quality. "We just saw the average price of a car for 2012 break $30,000 for the first time ever. So, it's not about price, it's about a little better quality, little better reliability and more appealing automobiles."

Domestic brands are showing the greatest improvement overall, and while slightly trailing imports, they have closed the gap. "The U.S. automakers are not doing it on price, which is the way it used to be. We used to see a lot of price incentives driving improving satisfaction with the U.S. automakers," said Van Amburg. "But, now we're really seeing a better commitment to quality, and better quality cars that's helped close that gap to the foreign automakers."

Ford holds the lead among domestics, followed closely by General Motors. Chrysler remains at the bottom of the survey. But, it's the brand that also reported the most improvement.

While the Japanese three carmakers still do slightly better than the domestics, their scores have slipped a bit. "While Japan's production is back on track after last year's earthquake and tsunami, both Toyota and Honda have had quality issues as they race to recapture market share," says Fornell. "These two automakers, once known for setting the bar for quality, have issued a large number of recalls over the past year. ACSI [American Customer Satisfaction Index] data show that recalls for quality defects have a negative impact on customer satisfaction for automobile manufacturers."

The American Customer Satisfaction Index was created by the University of Michigan as a way to measure customer satisfactions with goods and services in the United States. Even though the auto industry is showing improvement, the index as a whole went down slightly in August.

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