For the first time since 1986, a non-luxury nameplate – Saturn – ranks highest in customer satisfaction with dealer service, according to the JD Power and Associates 2002 Customer Service Index (CSI) study released yesterday.

Saturn’s strength lies in its strong performance on routine maintenance, where it earns the highest score in the study, significantly above all other makes, luxury or non-luxury. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Saturn service is routine maintenance-related; the industry average is 55%.

“The overall strength of Saturn’s customer satisfaction is a result of ‘white glove’ treatment, with easy service appointments, friendly interaction with service personnel and a strong emphasis on consideration for the timely treatment of customers,” said JD Power’s director of service/dealer satisfaction, John Harbicht.

“Saturn owners are intensely loyal to their dealers.”

The study indicates that more than three-quarters (77%) of spending on routine service and repair by Saturn owners is conducted at the dealership – much higher than the non-luxury average of 64%.

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While less than half of non-luxury owners intend to return to their dealers for customer-paid work, 61% of Saturn owners intend to do so.

With marked improvement in service facility ratings compared to 2001, Infiniti follows Saturn in the ranking. Customers rate Infiniti service exceptionally well on both routine maintenance and repair.

After securing the top position in CSI for the past five years (and nine of the previous 11 years), Lexus ranks third in 2002.

“Although Lexus is not the top-ranked brand this year, its service quality evaluations and the ability to fix vehicles right the first time continue to be hallmarks of Lexus service,” said Harbicht.

With steady product quality improvements throughout the automotive industry, customers are visiting dealer service departments with fewer repairs needed. The reported mix of maintenance and repair events for the industry is now at 55% for routine maintenance and 45% for repairs — an 8% shift since 1999 when the industry average was 47% maintenance and 53% repair.

Quality improvements also contribute to an industry trend of dealerships increasingly fixing vehicles right the first time. In 1990, only two-thirds of consumers said their repairs were resolved on the first visit. In 2002, that has jumped to 85%. Much of this can be attributed to vehicle quality improvements, less difficult repairs and improved service processes designed by manufacturers.

The study shows that even when recalls are necessary, they’re not always perceived as negative experiences by consumers. Not only are customer-reported incidences of recalls down from 21% in 2001 to 18% in 2002, but also product recalls don’t necessarily result in an erosion of customer satisfaction.

“When handled properly, we’re seeing that dealers can turn a recall into a positive experience that highlights good customer service,” said Harbicht. “When parts are readily available for the recall repair, customers can easily get a service appointment and the work is done in a timely fashion, CSI scores do not suffer. In fact, customers often have maintenance work performed during the recall visit, resulting in additional service dollars to the dealership.”

There is an ever-increasing trend among luxury-vehicle manufacturers to offer free maintenance programmes. Customer-reported free maintenance for luxury makes has risen to 38% in 2002, up from 28% in 2001. Superior treatment of these customers during the warranty can result in higher post-warranty service retention.

Seventy-five percent of luxury-vehicle owners who benefit from free maintenance say they would return to the dealership for routine maintenance after their warranties expired, and 80% would return for repairs.

The CSI Study, which was pioneered by the firm in 1981, focuses on experiences with the dealer service department during the first three years of vehicle ownership, which represents the majority of warranty periods. The study is based on responses from nearly 50,000 new-vehicle owners and lessees.