BMW AG and Daimler AG, with strong efforts to adopt cutting-edge technology, have become suppliers' favorite customers.
The two German automakers were rated well ahead of eight other automakers with North American manufacturing operations in a joint survey of North American suppliers by J.D. Power and Associates and Automotive News.
BMW and Daimler "have a very technology-focused consumer," says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, author of the survey and J.D. Power's executive director of global vehicle research. "It makes sense for them to be focused on this topic."
Honda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co., which finished third and fourth in the ranking of 10 automakers, also were well regarded for their focus on technology. Volkswagen AG, which was chided for its emphasis on cost cutting, finished 10th.
The survey underscores the growing importance of technology at a time when automakers are under heavy pressure to boost fuel economy, improve safety and provide sophisticated infotainment.
Toyota Motor Corp., which ranked second in J.D. Power's 2009 survey, fell three places this year. Survey respondents said Toyota has grown cautious about adopting new technology.
The "Suppliers' Choice" survey, conducted in May, asked suppliers to rank the automakers by five factors: openness, trust, incentives, ease of work and implementation of solutions. The survey's analysis is based on 132 supplier responses.
BMW and Daimler had more latitude to adopt new technology because they could raise vehicle prices more easily.
Ford and Honda had less leeway to raise the prices of their mass-market models, but both automakers still managed to gain access to new technology.
Honda has a consistent purchasing process that allows it to target a few key technologies and bring them to market. And Ford's senior executives have been empowered to make quick decisions to acquire technology.
In an interview last July with Automotive News, Ford purchasing chief Tony Brown said a team of senior purchasing and engineering executives visit about nine key suppliers annually for an in-depth look at their technology. The study offered some other conclusions:
-- Chrysler Group, which had a persistently low rank, improved its rank the most since the last survey in 2009. Chrysler moved up three places to sixth.
-- Toyota fell three places in the ranking, to fifth, largely because suppliers gave it the lowest rating for "ease of work" with automakers on innovative ideas. Some suppliers said Toyota appeared unwilling to take risks on new technology.
-- Volkswagen had lowest score in three of the five categories. One supplier chided the company for its "Byzantine implementation system," while another said VW's U.S. purchasing team "seems very hampered by Germany."
-- General Motors did poorly, finishing ninth, despite a variety of efforts to improve relations. One vendor said working with GM was like "working with the government."
In 2009, GM told suppliers they could keep half of any savings generated by reducing the cost of a part. Last year GM also paired up its senior engineering and purchasing executives -- each with similar responsibilities -- to speed internal decision-making.
In a recent interview with Automotive News, GM CEO Dan Akerson acknowledged that the company would have to work aggressively to restore trust among suppliers.
"You can't remedy a relationship that you've damaged by simply saying, 'I'm sorry,'" Akerson said. "You've got to start to build the history again and a record of reliability. I know we have to do that."
But it takes years to change the culture of a purchasing operation. "It's like turning around a giant cruise ship," VanNieuwkuyk says. "It takes a while to go in another direction."
Likewise, he expects Toyota to improve relations as it recovers from the disruptions suffered after the March 11 earthquake and the sudden acceleration controversy.
"Toyota's focus shifted away to survival mode," VanNieuwkuyk says. "They were asking suppliers to accept a little less while Toyota came out of it."
Neil DeKoker, president of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, says the fact that Mercedes-Benz and BMW are luxury brands gives them a competitive advantage with suppliers.
"If BMW gets a new technology and adds $100 to the price of the car, the customers don't mind," DeKoker notes. "They are willing to pay for innovation."
Now that tougher federal fuel-economy standards are taking effect, DeKoker expects all automakers -- luxury brands or not -- to reach out to suppliers.
"Automakers are going to need the help of suppliers to achieve those goals," DeKoker said. "They are collaborating more than they ever had."