With many markers of the health of the U.S. auto industry improving these days, J.D. Power & Associates brings us another one: Americans are more satisfied with the new-vehicle sales process than they were a year ago. Among the luxury brands that lead in this score, Lexus still ranks highest in the researcher's new Sales Satisfaction Index, although Cadillac is sneaking up, and Mini heads up mass-market brands.
The notion that financially strained Americans actually would be happier about the auto-dealership experience is contra-intuitive, given that this experience used to rank right above getting teeth pulled on many consumers' bucket lists. There's also the fact that there have been about four million fewer people in the U.S. new-vehicle market even this year, three years into an industry recovery, than during the market's heyday several years ago.
But, Power reports, overall satisfaction scores for the industry ticked up over last year, led by gains in consumer opinion of the delivery process, despite the fact that it now takes four minutes longer than it did a year ago to complete a vehicle sale, according to the data. Overall, Americans now spend 11 minutes longer on average in a dealership, at 4.3 hours, when they buy a car.
A primary reason for the longer process is that there's more electronic gadgetry to explain, such as infotainment systems, even on small cars. "Although technology demonstrations add time to the delivery process, those explanations substantially improve satisfaction, as well as customer loyalty and advocacy," said Jim Gaz, J.D. Power's director of automotive research, in a press release. "Buyers actually appreciate it when sales staff spends additoinal time with them, as long as that time provides them with added value."
Mini ranked highest among mass-market brands in the Power study for the second year in a row, followed this time by Buick, GMC, Volkswagen and Chevrolet — giving GM brands a very strong showing overall, combined with Cadillac's No. 2 finish in the luxury ranking. Lincoln improved most of any luxury brand, moving up from ninth to sixth, while VW jumped most of any mass-market brand, from 13th to fourth.
The study specifically confirmed Lexus's leadership in satisfying its customers even though 2011 was the brand's most challenging time ever, with the earthquake and tsunami in March knocking out a good share of Lexus's global production for several months. The nod came "despite the fact that the survey is based on [customer] experiences in dealerships in May, when we had low inventory levels," noted Mark Templin, general manager of the Lexus division, in a conference call today.
With Lexus's overall fortunes improving now, it looks like the brand could be teeing itself up for a third straight leadership year in the Power ranking next year.