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If new cars keep getting better, why is buyer satisfaction plunging?

Mercedes-Benz Showroom
Image used with permission by copyright holder
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

Depending on your point of view, the preceding phrase could mean a variety of things. It could mean that cars aren’t as well-built or excitable as they were in the past, or on the flip side, it could mean that they are in fact safer, more capable, more efficient, and more sophisticated than their antiquated (and carbureted) predecessors. In 2015, most would likely agree with the latter perspective, and yet overall owner satisfaction is on a steady decline.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) released its annual Automobiles Report earlier this year, and in regard to passenger cars, new vehicle contentment sits at 79 out of 100 points. That’s down 3.7 percent from 2014, and although it is a passing grade, it’s not exactly honor roll material. 2015 was the third straight year of depreciation, the report says, and overall satisfaction now sits at its lowest point since 2004. In fact, the only recorded year with a lower rating was during the Clinton Administration, 16 years ago.

To reach these numbers, the ACSI interviewed 4,294 individuals who had recently acquired a new car, and they were asked to evaluate their purchases based on perceptions of value, perceptions of quality, and the discrepancy between their initial expectations and what they actually drove off the lot.

“Customers are asked questions related to elements of the quality of the vehicle and service, such as vehicle performance, features, and attractiveness and convenience of arranging service, accessibility of location, and communication with service personnel in two dimensions,” ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg told us. According to VanAmburg, the defining dimensions are “The degree to which all these elements meet individual consumers personal needs and preferences,” and, “The frequency with which something has gone wrong with any of these elements.”

27 different nameplates were surveyed, including Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Volkswagen, Ford, Nissan, and Chrysler. 15 of the 27 companies — including the aforementioned brands — lost noticeable ground from 2014, and only two automakers — BMW and Acura — actually showed an improvement. What gives?

Total recall

One of the best metrics we have to measure overall vehicle quality is the amount of recalls that are instituted, and in 2015, there have been more than we can count. Faulty airbags, hackable cars, and fraudulent emissions software were just some of the culprits this year, and according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2014 saw a record 64 million recall notices sent out.

“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, chairman of the ACSI.

The only recorded year with a lower customer satisfaction rating was during the Clinton Administration, 16 years ago.

For those in the United States, it is especially troubling that so many recalls have dealt with vehicles produced right here at home. 77 percent of the nameplates that earned an “above average” ACSI score were imports, and Japanese and Korean companies outperformed their American and European counterparts by a significant margin.

“The ACSI data does point to a sharper decline in vehicle quality for domestic brands vs imports,” continued VanAmburg. “Sagging quality coupled with higher prices are the main complaints.”

Blame it on stricter regulations, cost-cutting measures, rushing to market, or lack of incentives to comply with safety laws, but there is undoubtedly an issue with the amount of recalls we see today, and that directly correlates to the low ratings we’re seeing. We wanted to get a consumer perspective on this issue, so we put our feelers out to find a new car buyer who has seen their satisfaction level drop recently. As it turns out, we didn’t have to go far.

Bad service

Dan Gaul is the Chief Technology Officer for Digital Trends, and he’s been a Mercedes-Benz owner for 15 years. After an unforgivable performance from the carmaker’s customer care center, though, he’s sworn off the brand for good.

“My first Mercedes was probably back in 2000,” he told us. “I’ve always liked Mercedes; I always liked the quality of them. That’s why I chose my next car, the car that I have now.”

His most recent purchase was a jet black C63 AMG Edition 507, a limited edition coupe with 6.2-liters of displacement and more than 500 horsepower backing it up. “I wanted something that was kind of sporty but had a good interior and was kind of still like a touring car, where I could fit four people in it comfortably,” he explained.

Dan Gaul/Digital Trends
Dan Gaul/Digital Trends

Then the problems started. At around 800 miles, the check engine light came on, so Gaul drove it to the dealership for a simple ECU re-flash. After the light came on the very next day, the C63 was diagnosed with a faulty left side camshaft, which left Dan without his car for about a week.

At this point, Dan was still in the realm of acceptable issues. Many new cars have problems; it’s just part of the game. But as his car inched closer and closer to lemon status, he began to learn just how sour the little AMG could be.

“I got it back, had it for about a month and was driving down the freeway and all of a sudden it started backfiring and losing a lot of power. It just died,” he described. “This time [the dealership] replaced all the camshafts.”

Faulty airbags, hackable cars, and fraudulent emissions software were just some of the recall culprits this year.

A month and a half later, the car died again, a critical failure due to defective valve lifters. They were replaced, but another 60 days or so down the road, the engine waved the white flag. Blown, torched, and dusted, the 6.2-liter AMG powerplant was no more, and Dan was left on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck.

After the lifters gave out — the fourth time Gaul had brought his vehicle into the dealership — he called Mercedes-Benz customer care. At this point, he simply didn’t want the car anymore, as the booming German vehicle was proving to be too much trouble for its own good. He left messages and emails for about a week with no response, only to commence the dreaded game of phone tag with a company representative. Weeks of poor communication passed and Gaul eventually learned that his lemon claim had been denied, despite having it in for service four times in just a few months.

Dan Gaul/Digital Trends
Dan Gaul/Digital Trends

“I contacted my lawyer and gave him all the information,” Gaul said. “My lawyer tried to call [the customer care rep] and couldn’t get a response either.” Meanwhile, the engine had downright exploded, forcing Mercedes to finally, finally approve the lemon claim and re-purchase the car. “I’m really unhappy, I’m never going to buy a Mercedes again. I’m just pissed because customer care isn’t treating me like a customer.”

As cars theoretically improve, the expectations for quality and customer service should too. From Gaul’s perspective, however, they have done the exact opposite, and he’s definitely not alone in his view. “A particularly poor service experience can set a strong negative tone for future behavior,” explained David VanAmburg, “I.e. that the customer will avoid repeat purchase due to a poor customer service experience.”

Sticker shock

If it’s not endless recalls or poor customer service, maybe it’s the effect on the consumer’s bank account forcing owner satisfaction ratings to go south. According to Kelly Blue Book, the average cost of a new vehicle in the U.S. is $33,730, and prices have been steadily increasing for some time.

“Transaction prices continue to rise, with month-over-month increases spurred primarily by luxury utility vehicles, while year-over-year numbers are driven by strength in trucks, vans, crossovers and full-size cars,” said Akshay Anand, analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “At the manufacturer level, nearly all automakers beat the year-over-year industry average, with the exception of Toyota Motor Company and Volkswagen Group.”

Since July 2014, new car prices have risen by 2.6 percent.

Louder voices

Are vehicles really better today than ever? The question is inherently hard to answer, as the definition of a good car varies wildly from person to person. What we can say definitely, though, is that the average new auto buyer is less happy today than they were a year ago, and that’s the kind of one-way traffic that must be stopped.

In the age of social media, manufacturers have to be more diligent than ever to satisfy their customers. Bad experiences at dealerships, lemons, recalls, and frustrating voicemail battles with customer care are not isolated issues anymore, not when consumers can instantly broadcast their thoughts to millions of people over the Web. Social media is a tool previous generations simply did not have, and if we want better cars on the road, we need to take advantage of it and make our voices heard.

Andrew Hard
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Andrew first started writing in middle school and hasn't put the pen down since. Whether it's technology, music, sports, or…
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