It may still be unprofitable, but Ford's luxury car unit Jaguar has again ranked highest in a Unites States overall sales satisfaction survey for the second consecutive year.

The brand has come a long way from its dark days in the 1980s, when it was renowned in the US for quality problems.

According to the JD Power and Associates 2005 sales satisfaction index, Jaguar, which tied with Lexus for the highest ranking in 2004, scored 889 on a 1,000-point scale. The brand performed particularly well in the salesperson and finance process factors.

Lexus (888) followed Jaguar in the rankings, while Buick and Porsche tied at third overall on 878.

Although still ranking below the industry average, Toyota's 'youth-oriented' Scion brand received the most improved score in the study, increasing 21 points from 2004.

According to the study, not finding a new vehicle that is equipped with the exact features desired is having a significant impact on overall satisfaction with the sales process.

This reflects the US buyer's preference to take delivery from dealer inventory, rather than placing an order, and waiting for several weeks (or months), for a custom-built vehicle to be delivered, as is more common here in Europe.

The JD Power survey said that, while 73% of new-vehicle buyers purchased their vehicle with the exact features they wanted, 11% said they ended up paying for features they didn't want.

"Buyers who are not able to equip their new vehicle exactly the way they want shop more dealers and spend more time at the dealer they purchase from trying to find the vehicle that will best meet their needs. This extra time spent lowers overall satisfaction compared to consumers who find a vehicle equipped exactly how they wanted, it noted.

"Whether buyers end up sacrificing a preferred colour or paying for options they didn't necessarily want, having to settle for a vehicle that is not equipped as expected not only affects satisfaction with the vehicle itself, but also affects customer satisfaction with the overall sales experience," said JD Power's executive director of automotive retail Steve Witten. "Although dealers use several resources to find the vehicle a consumer wants, manufacturers have to come up with more effective solutions for matching buyer expectations."

Satisfaction also fells significantly when the amount of time spent at the dealership exceeded one hour. Customer satisfaction dropped 59 points when comparing customers who spent one hour or less at the dealership to those who spent two or three hours. The average consumer spent approximately three hours at the dealership when purchasing their vehicle, and more than 15% of consumers spent four hours or more.

"Dissatisfaction with the amount of time spent on the sales process is mostly attributed to the negotiation process," added Witten.  "Buyers typically talk to several dealership personnel before finally driving off the lot with their new vehicle. Dealerships should work more efficiently and cut down the number of personnel a customer must deal with during the sales process, because satisfaction with the sales experience heavily impacts the likelihood of the customer using the same dealership for vehicle maintenance service in the future."

The study, which included responses from buyers who purchased a new vehicle in May, just prior to the introduction of employee price discount programmes in June, found that satisfaction has dropped substantially in the area of price compared to 2004.  New-vehicle buyers who made their purchase in May perceived they were not getting a good price for their vehicle when compared to those who made their purchase in June.  However, according to data from the Power Information Network, the average retail price of a new vehicle in June only decreased slightly compared to May.

"Consumers tend to walk into a dealership with a preconceived idea as to how much they are willing to spend for a new vehicle," said Witten.  "While this summer's employee discount incentive programmes lowered new-vehicle pricing, buyers often reinvested those savings into additional options and features, raising the average retail price to pre-incentive levels in many cases. We expect that the new round of incentives, such as the GM Red Tag Event, will have a similar effect on consumers."

The 2005 survey was based on responses from 37,296 new-vehicle buyers who purchased their vehicles in May of 2005.