DETROIT – The Motor City’s Big Three auto makers are losing market share to competitors based in Europe and Asia, but many of their long-term customers still wouldn’t dream of trading in their beloved Lincoln Town Car, Mercury Grand Marquis or Ford Explorer for a competitor.
Older owners of well-established Detroit nameplates, such as Lincoln Town Car, are most loyal buyers.

Well-established products like these, along with others such as the Chrysler Town & Country minivan – and cult favorites including the Dodge Viper – have the most loyal repeat buyers in the U.S., according to the eighth annual Polk Automotive Loyalty Awards.

Ford Motor Co. dominated the individual awards, announced at the 2004 North American International Auto Show, winning 10 out the 16 categories, from make loyalty (Ford), to luxury car (Lincoln Town Car) to fullsize SUV (Ford Expedition). However, General Motors Corp. logged the highest overall loyalty rate for a manufacturer (67.2%).

R.L. Polk & Co.’s Manufacturer Loyalty Excelerator report is the basis for the Polk Automotive Loyalty rankings and annual awards. The report was introduced in 1995 and was created to provide household loyalty information to manufacturers at many different levels, and is based on new vehicle owners re-entering the market and acquiring another new vehicle during the ’03 model year.

Polk officials credit Ford’s success in retaining its customers to new vehicle designs and improvements to the Expedition, Grand Marquis, Town Car and Navigator. Healthy incentives also are credited.

In an interview, Melissa Travers, manager, Loyalty Solutions at R.L. Polk, says most of the domestic category winners also have older owners, who tend to be more loyal than younger consumers to both companies and specific models.

But if Detroit’s Big Three have the most loyal ownership base, why are they losing market share? Because they aren’t winning over a new ownership base with conquest sales, (something their foreign competitors excel at) Travers says.

Foreign products won just three categories: prestige luxury car (BMW 7-Series); sports car (Volkswagen GTI) and compact SUV (Subaru Forester).

Even these winners raised eyebrows. The latest generation of the BMW 7-Series, introduced two years ago, has been widely criticized for its new styling direction and its complicated iDrive driver information system. Both have been rumored to be frightening away 7-Series loyalists in droves.

However, the Polk loyalty data suggest exactly the opposite. A BMW spokesman interviewed after the awards presentation says the award is gratifying but not surprising. He says despite criticisms, the current 7-Series is the most successful version ever.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com