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Who do we love? Detroit!

Image: 2010 Buick LaCrosse
The survey showed that customer satisfaction was up slightly over last year for Lincoln Mercury and stayed steady for Buick, the top two performers.Carlos Osorio / AP

The painful years of restructuring appear to be paying off for at least two of the Big Three automakers.

For the first time ever, Ford’s Lincoln Mercury and GM’s Buick received the highest customer satisfaction rankings among all automakers, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index released Tuesday. The ACSI measures customer sentiment about a number of products and industries, including this annual auto survey.

The results offer one more piece of evidence that U.S. automakers are starting to see the payoff from years of painful layoffs, corporate restructuring and quality improvements.

But the two carmakers also benefited from the series of recalls that have plagued Toyota and its luxury brand, Lexus, said Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI study and a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. Both the Japanese brands saw their customer satisfaction ratings fall this year, creating an opportunity for the American brands.

“No doubt they’re benefiting from (the recalls), but they’re also doing more things right,” Fornell said.

Still, the survey — which has tracked customer satisfaction with vehicle brands since 1995 — was a bittersweet victory. Overall, customers were less satisfied with all vehicle makers than they were last year, when the Cash for Clunkers and other incentive programs generated a lot of good deals, and goodwill.

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“Remember what happened last year. It’s going to be very difficult to match,” Fornell said.

Still, Fornell noted that in general U.S. automakers have gradually gone from huddling near the bottom of the pack in customer satisfaction to being seen as on par with many foreign competitors.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, who is unaffiliated with the customer satisfaction study, thinks U.S. automakers also are benefiting in part from a bigger push to “buy American” in the wake of the recession. He also thinks GM and Ford have done a good job offering vehicles that can compete against the European and Japanese automakers on both reliability and price.

“The competitive position for the domestics is just absolutely unbelievable,” Cole said.

The survey showed that customer satisfaction was up slightly over last year for Lincoln Mercury and stayed steady for Buick, the top two performers. (Ford plans to discontinue the Mercury brand as part of its restructuring to focus on the Lincoln brand.)

BMW ranked third, having fallen slightly from the previous year, and Cadillac ranked fourth but also saw a drop in satisfaction from 2009.

GM's GMC brand ranked lower on the list but also showed improvements over last year, while Ford namesake brand fell slightly. Fornell noted that it's expected for luxury brands to receive higher marks for customer satisfaction than more economical brands.

Ford has undergone massive changes in recent years, and GM took a trip to bankruptcy court to deal with its massive debt and other problems. But both companies appear to be on the rebound, with GM preparing for a public offering and Ford recently reporting a fifth straight quarterly profit.

Chrysler, which went through bankruptcy and is now run by Fiat, is not faring as well as the other two major U.S. automakers. Customer satisfaction with the Chrysler brand fell slightly, according to the survey, and its Dodge and Jeep brands were at the bottom of the list.

Cole thinks Chrysler is still struggling with quality issues and also is still too heavily focused on SUVs and trucks. But he expects that to change as Fiat incorporates more of its smaller vehicles into the lineup.

In general, Fornell said automakers are not out of the woods yet. He expects that all of them will continue to struggle amid continued high unemployment and other economic woes.

“The mood has changed in Detroit. They are clearly on an upswing,” Fornell said. “What they now have to fight against is the economy, which is not on the upswing.”