A new survey of US vehicle owners released on Tuesday indicates that while this summer's employee discounts may give automakers short-term sales gains, improving quality is more important in the long run, the Associated Press reported.

Toyota got the top score of 87 out of 100 in the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which rates automakers based on owners' satisfaction, AP said.

Honda, BMW, Cadillac and Buick rounded out the top five performers while Ford got the lowest score of 75, the report added.

AP said that half of the brands improved their scores from last year, including Hyundai and Pontiac. One-quarter stayed the same, while one-quarter saw their scores drop, including Nissan, Lincoln and Mercury.

University of Michigan professor Claes Fornell, who compiles the index, told the Associated Press that Hyundai's rapid climb shows that focusing on quality can significantly improve satisfaction ratings. Hyundai was at the bottom of the index with a record low score of 68 in 1999, Fornell reportedly said.

Fornell reportedly said the Big Three US automakers should spend less on incentives and more on quality improvements.

AP noted that, since July, GM, Ford and Chrysler have been offering employee prices for all customers on most 2005 vehicles. Those incentives have a positive effect on customer satisfaction, but it's not large or sustainable, Fornell told the news agency, adding that Toyota was raising its prices this summer but still got the highest satisfaction score.

"It's a dangerous path that the domestic industry is on, and it certainly looks like they're not making the right moves," Fornell reportedly said.