The Ford Lincoln Mercury and GM's Buick finished atop a well known national customer satisfaction survey out today, the first time U.S. automakers have brands that placed No. 1 and No. 2 in the same year.
Ford's Lincoln Mercury scored 89 out of 100 with GM's Buick just behind at 88, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, reinforcing the comeback talk for two of America's leading automakers.
There are past occasions when individual brands of a domestic auto maker have topped the list (for example, last year, GM's Cadillac tied at the top with Toyota's Lexus). But this is the first time domestic brands have taken the top two spots in the ACSI satisfaction survey, founded by the University of Michigan business school.
All of Detroit's products used to be clustered at the bottom of the industry, says ACSI founder Claes Fornell, author of The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference.
"Although very few car makers improved this year, the domestic ones have either held steady or lost less in customer satisfaction compared to international competition," Fornell says.
In the Tampa Bay market, Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation owns three Ford, two Chevy and one Cadillac dealership operating under the AutoWay brand. Despite a troubled economy, sales of domestic autos there are up by double digits.
"Before, consumers were not giving Detroit cars much of a look," AutoNation spokesman Marc Cannon says. But Ford and GM got busy introducing better models. And when perennial superpower Toyota got caught in a wave of recall publicity, it "opened the door" for shoppers to look anew at domestic models.
Ford's never required a government bailout and posted a robust $2.6 billion profit in the latest second quarter. And GM just reported a $1.3 billion quarterly profit.
GM was reorganized in bankruptcy court last year with $50 billion in federal aid. The federal government still owns 61 percent of the company, which it hopes to cash in for billions of dollars after the company goes public in the fall.
As for Chrysler, its products still rank near the bottom in ACSI's survey. But AutoNation's Cannon says don't count Chrysler out. It will unveil lots of new vehicles by 2012.
Amid all the banter of rebounding Ford and GM, I got to kick the tires of both companies this summer by renting newer models from each of the Detroit auto makers.
In Denver, I landed a Ford Escape, a right-sized SUV that felt underpowered but only sipped gasoline. It was roomy, even for my tall frame. My main gripe: Poor visibility when backing up.
Later, in California, it was GM's turn with a Chevy Malibu. Years earlier, I had driven a Malibu rental with good results. Alas, some "short" sighted GM designers must have gotten their clutches on restyling the Malibu. I literally was forced to adopt advanced yoga positions just to get into this car, and I scrunched while driving thanks to a lack of headroom.
It's premature to declare Ford and GM woes behind them. But making more customers more satisfied is a sure way to make up for some long lost ground.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org