DEALERS' CHIEF GRIPE IS LACK OF PRODUCT

Sometimes, things are too good.

In the hot market of 1994, dealers' main complaint about their factories is that they can't provide cars and trucks fast enough.

Despite stronger sales and increased profitability, dealers aren't any more satisfied with their manufacturers this year than they were last year, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 1994 Dealer Attitude Study.

But for the second year running, Saturn ranks higher in dealer satisfaction than other manufacturers, according to the study. Lexus, for the second year, finished in second place.

'When manufacturers are producing models that are in high demand, it harms dealer satisfaction because dealers want vehicles. In the short run, they tend to blame the manufacturer,' said David Sargent, senior project director at Power.

'Satisfaction among import dealers is slightly higher than last year, and satisfaction among domestic dealers is slightly lower than last year,' Sargent said.

Sales in 1994 have been strong for domestic dealers, and they have been short of many vehicles - particularly pickups and sport-utilities.

The annual survey measures attitudes of dealer principals toward their manufacturers.

Saturn's relationship with its dealers is enhanced by the limited number of dealerships.

'The partnership remains strong between Saturn and its dealers,' the study states.

J.D. Power III, president and founder of the company, said there is pressure on both the manufacturer and dealer to address the issue of overdealering, which is squeezing margins. 'The entire automotive industry is evolving into a new arena of retailing and distribution,' he said.

To cope with increased competition, dealers are following an industry trend toward 'right sizing' that has increased their productivity and overall efficiency.

The study found that:

The number of franchises held per dealer has decreased from 2.77 in 1992 to 2.49 in 1994.

The number of separate facilities per dealer has declined from a high of 1.59 facilities in 1989 to a 1.44 in 1994.

Dealers are stretching ad dollars. Spending peaked in 1988 at $337,000 and fell to $259,000 for the full year of 1993.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------Top 10

Dealer Satisfaction Index scores for the top franchises. The industry average was 100.

1. Saturn157

2. Lexus140

3. Jaguar124

4. Toyota117

4. Volvo117

6. BMW113

7. Mercedes-Benz111

8. Infiniti109

9. Honda107

9. Nissan107

You can reach Arlena Sawyers at asawyers@crain.com

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