Saturn Tops Car Sales Satisfaction Survey : Autos: Infiniti takes No. 2 spot in J.D. Power index. Europeans dominate for first time.

From Times Wire Services

Saturn, General Motors Corp.'s car that doubles as its laboratory of change, took the top honors in J.D. Power & Associates' car sales satisfaction index for the first time, the surveyor said Thursday.

Saturn dealerships' no-haggle pricing and low-key atmosphere earned the car a record score of 160 in the index, which measures buyer satisfaction with dealers and vehicles during the sales and delivery process.

However, European nameplates outnumbered domestics on the list's Top 10 brands for the first time in the nine-year history of the survey. They accounted for half of the 10 highest scores, while the domestics had three and the Japanese two.

Agoura Hills-based J.D. Power questioned 54,623 buyers of 1995 cars and light trucks for the survey, which measures customers' satisfaction with dealers from whom they have bought new vehicles and with the condition of their new cars and trucks upon delivery.

The company, which sells information to the auto makers and others interested in the industry, issues several surveys a year that are closely watched by auto makers. Another survey monitors buyer satisfaction after one year of ownership.

More than 90% of Saturn owners said they were very satisfied with the way their cars were sold and delivered, far above the industry average of 76%.

Nissan's Infiniti division came in second at 150, and GM's Cadillac and Toyota's Lexus tied for third at 149.

The industry average among the 34 auto makers ranked was 125. Sixteen auto makers were above that score and 18 were below.

This is the fourth year in a row that Saturn and the four luxury-car brands have led the list. Lexus came in first in 1994 with a score of 157, followed by Infiniti, Saturn and Cadillac.

"Saturn has obviously lived up to its commitment to customer enthusiasm and a hassle-free experience, which has been embraced and implemented by its retailers, their sales and service staffs and, clearly, Saturn customers," said J.D. Power III, president of the survey company.

Power noted that Saturn has been a leader in hiring women to sell cars. Women, who made up just under half of the buyers surveyed, indicated that they were considerably more satisfied with female salespeople.

Five European nameplates scored high on the list. Volvo scored fifth, Mercedes-Benz scored sixth, Audi was seventh and BMW and Jaguar tied for ninth.

The improved scores of European cars indicates that those manufacturers have learned quickly from the Japanese luxury brands and successfully launched their own consumer satisfaction programs, J.D. Power said.

Acura and Porsche moved onto the above-average list (Porsche was not ranked last year), while three nameplates fell off: Saab, Ford and Plymouth.

In the light-truck survey, which includes sport-utility vehicles and vans, Oldsmobile regained the top spot it had lost to Land Rover in 1994. Olds scored 134, followed by Chrysler with 133 and Pontiac with 127.

The average score for light trucks was 117.

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