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Customer satisfaction dips for auto industry

When it comes to making their customers happy, the world's automakers have hit a bit of a rough patch.

For the second-straight year, satisfaction with the auto industry is down, according to a American Customer Satisfaction Index report released Tuesday. The ACSI score for cars and light trucks is now 82 out of 100, a loss of 1 point, or 1.2 percent, from last year.

"We're still pretty high on the overall experience, nothing to alarm us here, but in terms of overall satisfaction, the edge has been taken off a little bit this year and last," ACSI director David VanAmburg said.

Tomwang112 | iStock / 360 | Getty Images

The decline is pervasive: Scores fell for 16 of the 21 nameplates measured in the survey. And the ACSI score for domestic automakers now sits at a five-year low.

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Only two brands—Chevrolet and Buick—improved their scores, up 4 and 1 percent, respectively. And while foreign manufacturers continue to hold the satisfaction advantage—six of the top seven ACSI cars are imports—the gap between imports and domestic vehicles narrowed. That's because satisfaction for Asian and European cars fell by more than it did for American brands.

Another noteworthy finding: Numerous luxury brands, including Lexus, Cadillac and BMW, posted drops in this year's survey. Even top-rated Mercedes-Benz (86) dropped 2 percent. Honda's Acura line had the most dramatic decline—7 percent for a score of 77—landing it at the very bottom of the list.

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"That didn't used to be the case, and it suggests that consumers now expect more for their money when they pay a premium price," said Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman and founder.

Company
2013
2014
% change
Automobiles & light vehicles 83 82 -1.2%
Mercedes-Benz 88 86 -2%
Subaru 86 85 -1%
Lexus 87 84 -3%
Volkswagen 84 84 0%
Toyota 86 83 -3%
Honda 86 83 -3%
Buick 82 83 1%
GMC 85 82 -4%
Kia 82 82 0%
Chevrolet 79 82 4%
Ford 83 81 -2%
Nissan 83 81 -2%
Chrysler 83 81 -2%
Hyundai 82 81 -1%
All others 81 81 0%
Cadillac 85 80 -6%
BMW 82 80 -2%
Mazda 82 80 -2%
Audi NM 79 NA
Jeep 80 79 -1%
Dodge 79 78 -1%
Acura 83 77 -7%
American Customer Satisfaction Index

The new survey also found that recalls have a significant impact on an owner's happiness. Those who received a recall notice in the past year rated their vehicle 6 percent lower than those who did not.

"It speaks to the issue of reliability," VanAmburg said. "It makes us wonder what else might go wrong down the road. If there was this defect, is there going to be another one and another one?"

There's nothing in this new report that indicates the global auto industry is headed off a cliff—it's still the sixth-highest rated of 43 industries ACSI measures. But no business can afford to disappoint its customers, especially for such an expensive purchase.

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This is a wake-up call for auto manufacturers to keep their eye on consumer tastes and preferences, VanAmburg said.

"It's very easy to get stale quickly in this industry," he said. "You must constantly engineer and fine-tune these autos to meet the latest customer wants and needs. Also, maintain the highest level of quality while you're doing this. Any perception that shortcuts are being taken or that there's a lack of care on the quality side takes a toll on the likelihood that you will go back to that same manufacturer the next time you buy an auto."

The full report is available for free download on the American Customer Satisfaction Index website.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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