By on September 5, 2017

2018 Toyota Camry XSE

Overall contentment among domestic vehicle owners dropped slightly in this year’s American Customer Satisfaction Index. Meanwhile, enjoyment from European and Asian automakers stayed roughly the same. However, that information might not be quite so useful until you begin comparing individual brands (and even other industries).

Domestic automakers averaged 80 out of a possible 100 points in the ACSI scale, with General Motors as the only American manufacturer seeing an improvement from 2016. For the sake of comparison, let’s see how other industries are doing on either end of the spectrum: Cable companies, which everyone hates, averaged 64 points and television sets, which everyone loves, scored 87 points.

By and large, that doesn’t place automakers in the doghouse. But it does highlight a modest shift in the perception of specific domestic brands while longtime satisfaction leaders, like Toyota and Lexus, hold pole position. 

American Customer Satisfaction Index 2017

General Motors made some serious gains in the latest ranking. Most notably with its Cadillac division, which saw a 5.1-point increase in consumer satisfaction over 2016. Meanwhile, GMC held its impressive 84-point score — placing it against Mercedes-Benz, which gained 3.7 points, and just behind Subaru’s third-place score of 85.

Buick also saw a slight increase in consumer pleasure (1.3 points), while Chevrolet lost 2.4 points. This left GM with a company-wide average of 82 points as rivals Ford and Fiat Chrysler both slipped rather dramatically.

While Lincoln’s overall score for 2017 is tied with Cadillac’s 83 points, that represents a 4.6-percent drop in consumer pleasure from 2016. Ford’s mainstream brand also saw a modest loss, but it still outperformed all non-Jeep FCA brands. Both Dodge and Fiat occupied the lowest slots, with 75 points apiece. Mitsubishi yielded a 78-point score, followed by Volkswagen and Ford’s 79 points.

The combined scores of all brands suppressed FCA to 77 points overall, leaving 81 points for Ford. These scores also widened the ACSI’s gap between domestic and foreign automakers, leaving North American brands with 80 points against Europe and Asia’s 82. While that difference seems tolerable, ACSI Chairman and founder Claes Fornell referenced the damning nature of some recalls (which visibly hurt Volkswagen) and wondered if the results weren’t indicative of something more.

American Customer Satisfaction Index 2017

“Chances are that we have seen this movie before,” said Fornell in a statement. “There was a surge in demand and increasing customer satisfaction with foreign cars in the 1980s, mostly because the domestic auto industry had difficulty keeping up. While U.S. cars have improved much over the years, they have not been as consistent in quality and customer satisfaction compared with their international counterparts. Experience with the Great Recession shows that this movie does not have a good ending unless major steps are taken — not another Government bailout, but rather a renewed focus on how to create satisfied and loyal customers.”

That certainly plays into market research firms being “the key” to unlocking a manufacturer’s true potential. Certain brands have continued to struggle over the years and the complete version of the ACSI’s yearly breakdown highlights that slippage rather well. Let’s remember that, while influenced by mechanical missteps and recalls, this is a measurement of public perception and some automakers have clearly failed at maintaining their image.

[Image: Toyota]

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27 Comments on “American Car Buyers Less Satisfied With Domestics, Toyota Perpetually Fine: Study...”

  • avatar

    Any new car bought today is good. Some are better than others but there is nothing awful, in the 80s/90s sense of the word. So yeah pretty much anyone buying a new car today will be generally satisfied. I think a lot of the negative sentiment is from 1st world problem stuff like it takes my iphone 9 seconds to sync when it should only take 7 seconds.

    This is the problem with customer service reviews in the Yelp era. Unless everything is 100% perfect, you’ll have a lot of people giving 1 star reviews and swearing it’s the worst experience in the history or experiences, because a waiter gave them a Diet Coke instead of a regular Coke.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Jack Baruth talked about that in one of his articles several years ago:

      It is within the abilities of even the cheapest car today to keep all its parts to itself, rather than dropping them all over the road, for at least 100K miles. Things like panel-gap consistency and putting the dashboard in straight still plague certain automakers, but they generally have the “build the car properly” part of the equation down pat. Genuinely terrible accidents are more survivable today than ever in today’s auotomobiles. And if you frame it that way, then, no…there are no bad modern cars, especially in the mainstream arena. Whatever you buy will serve as a reasonable mode of transportation for your needs. And that was even true by the 90s.

      However, I do think modern cars have some grievances. Some of them—a lot of them—don’t come close to the advertised fuel economy in the real world. Others have herky-jerky automatic transmissions that can leave you in a spot when you need to downshift and pass another driver. And then there are the ones with all of those fancy computers, which sometimes don’t go to sleep like they’re supposed to and cause the entire car to eat batteries at an alarming rate.

      And beyond that, “bad” is relative. If there’s a baseline in a particular segment and a car mostly fails to meet that baseline, then it’s a bad car. Or at least not a good one. That it won’t fall apart on you, strand you on the road with a case of vapor lock, rust a hole in the floorpan or impale you with a steering column in a crash…does not mean that it’s a good car. The definition of “car” has changed.

      The way I see this is by looking at it the other way, especially in regard to the delta between American cars and better-built cars from other countries. How did Americans put up with terribly-engineered family cars when those from Japan were so much better? How did they stomach paying so much for a luxury car with no more sophistication than the ox cart sold under its respective lesser brand, when they generally paled in comparison to those from Germany? I think the answer to that can be answered in two parts: Well, Americans didn’t know better. Until they did. Once foreign cars got larger and more powerful—and with better A/C systems—there wasn’t really a reason to buy an American car. And then, sometime between the late 80s and now, the playing field was equalized. The cars seen on American roads now are in large part global, and there’s not a difference in quality between brands just because they’re headquartered in different countries. That change, to me, is more significant than the advancement of cars in general.

      • 0 avatar


        I had to chuckle when I read the part about the auto transmission. I mentioned something about my truck’s transmission shifting a kind of jerky when going downhill. And she asked me what does the transmission do again? She is a much more typical car buyer than you. For someone like my wife – which I would say represents 80% of the car buying public – “good” means starts every time, the A/C blows cold when it’s 95 outside and Pandora works. And by that measure every car made today is “good”. People who are into cars will always find something to complain about, and often justifiably so. But that is a small subset of the general buying public, IMO.

        As for gas mileage not living up to EPA ratings, is that a big thing? I really don’t know. The last few cars I have owned have been right on target with the MPG advertised. Said truck with the downhill jerkiness is showing even better than advertized by about 1-2 MPG on the highway.

        • 0 avatar

          “the A/C blows cold when it’s 95 outside and Pandora works. And by that measure every car made today is “good”.”

          Ten or a dozen years ago, turning the AC compressor off at red lights was rightly regarded as so masochistic that even the hybrids for self-hating college professors didn’t do so unless you explicitly pressed the button for extra white guilt mode.

          Today every car with stop-start defaults on startup to sweat in the eyeballs at red lights and an increasing number of them provide no way to turn the feature off.

          Cars are surely getting better, but better at what?

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, the constant repetition of negative experiences is only getting worse over time. Many of the worst FCA cars today are — relatively speaking — better than a good Toyonda 20 years ago. Quiet, reliable, comfy, efficient.

      But since things have gotten bigger, heavier, and more complex over time, I had to add the “relatively speaking” qualifier. There was so much less to break (or complain about) just a decade ago. Part of why I like to say the early to mid-2000s were probably the high point of internal combustion cars. And they may hold that title forever.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t know about reliable. I still see tons of mid-90s Camry’s on the road, they might be the most indestructible cars ever made. My Toyota and Honda both have well over 100K on the clock, with nothing but brakes and fluid changes. The domestics haven’t seemed to shake the culture of value engineering, cutting corners to save a couple bucks on components that will fail, expensively and annoyingly, after a few years. Even if the drivetrains are reasonably solid, there’s still lots of things that can fail and be a huge PIA. Friend of mine just traded in her Caddy because electronic gremlins were driving her nuts.

    • 0 avatar

      To steal from Car & Driver that raises the question do we want our cars like our appliances? Japanese cars?

      Too close to call? Margin of error? And what is the break down by Asian makes since the domestics are broken down?

      If Matt or someone else do not post the numbers I’ll sign up to that site later tonight.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s also relative. The build quality on my Mustang isn’t as good as other makes. Mechanically it’s fine. The driving experience is great but panel gaps and fitment are below average.

      In terms of overall satisfaction it would ding the experience. Especially given the price.

  • avatar

    No doubt about it, Toyota is my first choice in vehicles. But due to Toyota’s poor packaging of vehicle options, my last purchase was a Ford, and my next purchase will also probably be a Ford.

  • avatar

    A couple of (admittedly unverifiable) thoughts on the subject:

    People who buy European brands are usually more likely to be the car-junkie types or seriously into status. Which, I would expect, has them taking their car purchase meaning a lot more to them than the average individual.

    People who buy American brands are more likely to be completely indifferent to the various auto marques. You know, the kind of person who answers, “What kind of car do you drive?” with “It’s blue.” I would expect a lower level of satisfaction here, no matter how well or poorly the car functions because, it’s a tool. It doesn’t matter, unless it stops working.

    The Japanese-Korean category, first off, gets the Toyota-Honda bounce. Even thought the competition has caught up, those two still keep their reputations pristine enough to keep getting credit for the massive quality advantage they held thirty years ago. Even though they don’t have it (in that extreme) anymore. In the case of Subaru, is the same sort of snobbery (although done almost in reverse) as the European marques which keeps the appreciation up. And for pretty much everything else, well, they’re not dipping any lower than the American brands, so the overachievers in this bunch keep the score up.

    Now, I see the above as shading, not the absolute score. Individual unit quality still means a lot, but it’s not the only factor. And the shading will show up: A lemon Audi is going to be treated with a lot more owner kindness of attitude than a lemon Chevrolet. Because that customer has a lot more vested in the reason for purchase.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe you are quite correct. You might think that a person paying $60K for a car would be less forgiving than someone paying $20K but that’s not the way it usually works.

      Cognitive dissonance is thrown into the mix and no one wants to admit that their $60K car had just as many or more problems than the $20K car.

      That sometimes breaks down when the problems become overwhelming as happened with some German brands between 1995-2010 when it seems they were on a very slow learning curve with their electronics.

      • 0 avatar

        Well German car dead battery from letting the car sit for a few days could cost easily get near a grand if the ecu needs to be reprogrammed.

        Vs a faulty ignition switch on a cheaper american car which could be few hundred dollars or simply relearn.

        Both can leave you stranded but who should have the biggest gripe?

    • 0 avatar

      Most of them cost more than their domestic counterparts on cars dot com. I don’t add the value in their old powertrains.

  • avatar

    Clearly, this is useless data because GM showed improvement and that can’t be.

  • avatar

    It continues to bother me that we categorize automotive quality by nationality of the parent company.

    Brands I don’t trust the quality of (not all models, but many in the brand): Nissan, Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Fiat, Hyundai (yes, they’re getting better, but I’m not converted yet).

    Brands I’d consider owning: Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Mercedes.

    Again, there are models in each list that could drag it to the other list.

    Let’s get over our need to hate on one nation or another.

    Also why is FCA categorized as a US brand? Aren’t they European?

    • 0 avatar

      Never mind that many of the “Asian” cars are more domestic than many of the “Domestic” cars. Which leads one to believe that Americans are more than capable of building a great car, if given robust processes and quality supply-chain parts.

      But I will give Toyota props (speaking from family experience). Consistently running vehicles, if a bit boring, with high miles and no real issues during the ownership cycle.

      • 0 avatar

        That is an argument I was expecting someone to make. If a Camry (not the 2018) is a highly American car, then claims that Americans can’t make quality cars is kinda silly.

        My claim is that they can all make quality cars. Just look at NUMMI (Toyota / GM partnership). Same platform. Many of the same parts. Same assembly line. Yet Toyota gets a higher quality ranking? Why? People will blame design, but I believe it’s perception and care of the vehicle after purchase.

        • 0 avatar

          NUMMI was a UAW plant (maybe a somewhat reformed UAW shop). When NUMMI closed in 2009 there were many articles that discussed the history of NUMMI and Toyota manufacturing in America. A couple of these which are easily googleable are at the NPR website and another is online at the Harvard Business Review.

          One sentence excerpted from the HBR article about NUMMI is:

          “Toyota learned how to adapt its famed Toyota Production System to work with US suppliers, US government regulations, and, most importantly, the UAW.”

          NUMMI was the first and last Toyota manufacturing plant in the US with a UAW contract.

          I cannot speak to the quality of the Corollas and Tacomas that came out of the NUMMI plant.

      • 0 avatar

        It helps to keep the same powertrains around for over a decade.

  • avatar

    How many decades has Chrysler/Dodge been at the bottom of quality surveys across the board?

    They really do seem to be happy being a subprime automaker.

  • avatar

    Toyota, drives like a Chevy, looks like a Pontiac with all that cladding! You never go full Pontiac!

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