Infiniti, the luxury brand of Nissan, edged out Saturn for the top spot in this years J.D. Power and Associates Customer Service Index study, which measures how customers are treated at dealership service departments.
There was a three-way tie with Lexus and Acura for third place with a surprise showing from Lincoln.
And in another big move up the index, the Audi brand, long the poster child for low service satisfaction, made the transition from below industry average to above average.
The annual J.D. Power study focuses on experiences with the dealer service department during the first three years of vehicle ownership, which typically represents the majority of vehicle warranty periods. The study is based on the responses of nearly 106,000 new-vehicle owners and lessees.
Infiniti, which placed second in last years study, has reliable vehicles, so most of the brands service business is in maintenance work, according to Power, of Westlake Village, Calif. The brand scored 900 out of a possible 1,000 points on the index.
Infinitis strongest suit is fixing it right the first time and things relating to that the quality of the diagnosis and the thoroughness in making sure that everything that was promised gets done, says Joe Ivers, a partner and executive director of quality and customer satisfaction at J.D. Power.
If a repair is involved, the service quality is top notch, Ivers says. If its only maintenance, Infinitis strength is getting the customer in and out quickly, he says.
Audi, whose U.S. sales have grown dramatically over the past decade, has not been able to keep up with customer service needs, Ivers says.
Audi has been a sort of poster child of big success and rapid sales growth but has been really choking on all those customers, Ivers says. You had a painfully long wait to get an appointment.
Ivers attributes Audis 29-point improvement to building more service capacity in the dealerships and finding more efficient ways to schedule customers.
The customers are reporting a whole lot less time that they have to wait to actually get into the dealership, Ivers says.
Mercedes-Benz also had a 29-point jump in this years study, lifting the franchise back above the industry average. Like Audi, Mercedes-Benz is doing a better job of getting customers in more quickly for service appointments.
From an industry perspective, quality improvements across the industry are driving down the need for warranty repairs at new-vehicle dealerships, transforming the nature of the dealer service business, Ivers says. The study finds that the balance of work at dealerships is tilting toward scheduled maintenance as opposed to repairs. The mix of routine maintenance business has increased to 57 percent in 2003 from 47 percent in 1999.
To replace declining revenue from warranty work, dealers must compete with other service providers, such as independent service centers, for customer-paid service business, making them more accountable to their customers, Ivers says.
Other shifts worth noting:
Its going to give them some bragging rights that they are tied with Lexus, Ivers says.
Land Rover has a consistent pattern of vehicle durability challenges, Ivers says. They have been plagued for many years with a high rate of need for repair.