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Recalls Help Drive Growing Dissatisfaction With New Auto Purchases

Auto sales are booming. And yet, many buyers are less than pleased with their new vehicles, according to a new national customer satisfaction survey.
Image: Fiat 500's are shown at a dealership
Fiat 500's are shown at the Criswell Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Fiat-Ram truck dealership in Gaithersburg, Maryland October 2, 2012. GARY CAMERON / Reuters File

Auto sales are booming. And yet, many buyers are less than pleased with their new vehicles, according to a national customer satisfaction survey published Tuesday.

Of the 27 auto brands tracked by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Automobile Report, 15 lost customer satisfaction from a year ago. Only two — Acura (up 8 percent) and BMW (up 3 percent) — gained any ground, with the remaining dozen unchanged.

Overall owner satisfaction — 79 out of 100 points — was down 3.7 percent from last year. It was the third straight yearly decline, and the lowest score since 2004.

One reason for the lower numbers is a record number of recalls — nearly 64 million last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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“While it is true that all cars are now much better than they were 10 to 20 years ago, it is alarming that so many of them have quality problems,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman and founder in a statement.

Jack Gillis, author of “The Car Book 2015,” isn’t surprised that owners are frustrated by the recalls, many of them to fix life-threatening defects.

“While recall notices are a good thing, because they identify problems and offer solutions, the backlog in parts needed to fix the recalls is likely causing angst among the owners waiting to get their cars fixed,” he said.

And then there’s the price

The ACSI survey shows that sticker shock is another factor driving down buyer satisfaction.

The average cost of a new vehicle in the U.S. is now $33,453, according to the latest estimate from Kelly Blue Book.

You’re getting a lot more in terms of fuel economy, safety and technology,” noted Mike Quincy, senior editor at Consumer Reports Autos. “But it’s a tough pill to swallow when you go to the dealer for the first time in eight or ten years and realize how much new cars cost.”

And as prices have gone up, so have customer expectations.

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“We’ve come to expect close to perfection now,” said ACSI director David VanAmburg. “We really become unhappy when we find any defect or are told we have to take our car in to have some kind of recall taken care of, even if it doesn’t cost us anything.”

Something else to consider: Customer satisfaction scores may have been artificially inflated from 2008 to 2012, the ACSI report noted. During the recession, various incentives were offered, including the Cash for Clunkers program, to stimulate car sales.

“Now that the economy is recovering, automakers don’t have to give us so much love on the price as they were doing in past years, and so we’re a little less happy as we reflect back on that past purchase,” VanAmburg said.

Winners and losers

When it comes to customer satisfaction, Asian and European manufacturers still beat U.S. automakers. In fact, 77 percent of the vehicles with above-average ratings are imports.

“The Japanese, Koreans and Europeans continue to make cars that customers perceive to be of significantly higher quality than the U.S. brands,” VanAmburg told NBC News.

The domestic car industry hit a five-year low in the new ACSI survey, pulled down by Fiat Chrysler brands.

Luxury vehicles typically have a higher level of satisfaction. We pay a lot more and we expect a higher level of quality and we typically get it. So it’s no surprise that luxury brands dominated the ratings.

Lexus took the top spot from Mercedes-Benz this year. With a score of 84, Lexus was unchanged from 2014, but Mercedes dropped three percent to 83, putting it in a tie for second with Acura and Lincoln.

BMW, Subaru and Toyota were just a point behind at 82. Hyundai (81) Buick, Cadillac, Honda, Mazda and Volkswagen (tied at 80) also scored above average.

Three Fiat Chrysler nameplates anchored the bottom of the list: Jeep (75), Chrysler (74) and Fiat (73).

The ACSI report is based on 4,294 customer surveys collected in the second quarter of 2015. Owners were asked to evaluate their recent vehicle purchase and experiences. You can read the full report and get complete ratings on the ACSI website.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.