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Consumers see fewer differences among car brands

In our new survey, Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet continue to lead in overall perception, but by a slimmer margin

Published: January 2012
Brand perception
Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet are at the top, but the margins are smaller.

The perceived difference between the top car brands and the challengers is shrinking. That's the finding of the 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet, which have been perennial leaders in the survey, maintained their top positions but have seen the points gap decrease. In fact, most of the top brands saw double-digit drops in their total scores. Smaller companies have benefited from this shift, illustrated by the small electric-car builder, Tesla, breaking into the top 10.

The survey scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, environmentally friendly/green, design/style, and technology/innovation. Combining those factors gives us the total brand-perception score. While the scores reflect a brand's image in consumers' minds, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand's vehicles.

Toyota continues to dominate in brand perception, although it slipped a significant 17 points, compared with last year's survey results. Other top brands—Ford, Honda, and BMW—saw their scores drop more than 20 points. The two leading General Motors brands, Cadillac and Chevrolet, did relatively better with only single-digit decreases.
 
Dramatic events in the automotive industry seem to be affecting how consumers view auto brands. Erratic gasoline prices and a struggling economy have pushed consumers to prize low operating costs and good reliability. With safety a strong interest among car owners, we saw Toyota's perception score drop substantially after its widespread recalls of a couple years ago, a decrease from which it still has not fully recovered. Many Japanese manufacturers were challenged to maintain adequate production following the earthquake and tsunami disaster of last year. Volvo was bought by Chinese automaker Geely in mid-2010. And Saab has faltered over the last few months as it has struggled in vain to ward off bankruptcy.

With consumers becoming more aware of electric cars, Fisker and Tesla, small producers that were added to our latest survey, scored better than many well-established brands. Although awareness of those brands is relatively low compared with that of more established companies, respondents who were familiar with them held Fisker and Tesla in high regard for certain categories.

In the survey we also asked how important each factor was to the respondents in making a car purchase. As in past years, safety was the top consideration, followed by quality, value, performance, environmental friendliness, design and style, and technology and innovation.

Overall, the car-brand leaders do not stand out from the pack the way they did only a couple years ago, and perceptions for the individual factors reveal significant changes. In the subsequent pages, we'll dig into the findings and explore the implications.

Best and worst in brand perception

The chart below shows the overall scores for the top and bottom 10 brands, according to the Consumer Reports 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey. Overall scores are an aggregate, reflecting a brand's total perception level across seven areas. They are rounded to the nearest whole number. The top five brands in each area are listed below. The categories are listed in rank order of importance to consumers.

Overall brand perception
Best Worst
Brand Score Brand Score
Toyota 131 Saab 5
Ford 121 Fiat 7
Honda 94 Mini 7
Chevrolet 92 Mitsubishi 7
Mercedes-Benz 84 Land Rover 8
BMW 69 Mercury 10
Volvo 67 Suzuki 11
Cadillac 63 Jeep 12
Lexus 54 Infiniti 16
Tesla 51 Mazda 16

ConsumerReports.org has a variety of tools that can help you quickly and efficiently narrow down your car-buying choices, based on real-world test results, reliability data, owner-cost estimates, and other ratings. In addition, Cars Best Deals Plus, our premium online offering, gives you access to CR's Bottom Line Prices, which help you get the best deal on a new car, detailed test-track reports from our engineers, and more detailed reliability findings that let you see the specific types of problems subscribers are experiencing.

How the scores were calculated
The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey of 2,045 adults from Dec. 1-5, 2011, and collected survey data from 1,702 adults in households that had at least one car.

Overall brand perception is an index calculated as the total number of times that a particular make was mentioned as exemplary across all seven categories, divided by the total unaided awareness of the brand. (Interview subjects were asked what brands exemplified the traits, instead of being read a list of brands.) That approach compensates for awareness level, ensuring that every brand has an equal chance of leading a category, not just the best-selling or most well-known brands.

Category scores reflect the number of times that the particular make was mentioned as an exemplar of the particular attribute, again corrected for awareness.

Important factors in buying a new car

This list ranks the seven key factors by how important they are to consumers when buying a new car. The percentage is based on the number of respondents who said the factor was among their top three priorities. For comparison, we've included last year's figures, though no factor had a significant year-to-year shift.

While the overall order remains the same, we did see a notable difference between genders. Women considered safety far more important (73 percent versus 57 percent of men), as well as environmental friendliness (32 percent versus 26 percent). Men place more emphasis on design/style (27 percent versus 20 percent of women) and technology/innovation (21 percent versus 14 percent).

Factor 2012 (%)
2011 (%)
Safety 65 65
Quality 57 57
Value 51 51
Performance 49 47
Environmentally friendly/green
29 28
Design/style 24 25
Technology/innovation 18 17

Safety

The leading brands in overall perception typically excel in multiple categories. Volvo, however, has maintained a top-10 spot for years by virtue of its safety reputation alone. This year, the brand took a dramatic 21 percentage point drop in this factor, from last year's 70 to 49 percent. If that trend continues, it could drop Volvo out of the overall top 10 in future years and into the second tier.

Several other brands are down a few points this year, with Subaru notably dropping from 17 to 10 percent, falling from the list of top five brands on this dimension. Toyota had taken a hit amid its large-scale recalls a couple years ago. But in the latest results, it has remained consistent at 13 percent, year over year, which elevated it to third place because of the other brands' decreases.

What we have seen in the safety category exemplifies a trend observed with other factors—this year, consumers are identifying more brands as leaders, rather than just a select few.

Safety
Brand 2012 (%) Brand 2011 (%)
Volvo 49 Volvo 70
Ford 18 Ford 20
Toyota 13 Honda 17
Honda 13 Subaru 17
Mercedes-Benz 12 Mercedes-Benz 14

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for safety. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

Quality

As in other areas, we see scores edging downward in the quality factor, with Toyota, Honda, and Ford now sharing a three-way tie for the top spot and the top brands in general having less of an advantage in perceived leadership. The key story here is Honda losing 6 percentage points, while Toyota holds at 19 percent. We saw similar results in our 2011 Annual Auto Survey, based on subscribers' experiences with 1.3 million vehicles. In that unrelated survey, Honda moved down one position in the brand rank and Toyota held pat. Likewise, Ford dropped 10 positions in our reliability rankings.

For Honda, the perceived quality may also have been influenced by its lackluster new products. There have been several new or redesigned models introduced in recent years, including the Honda Civic, CR-Z, Insight, and Pilot, that didn't measure up to the competition or even to the model it was replacing.

Brand perception can be influenced by many things, from professional road tests to marketing. Word-of-mouth from friends and neighbors can be a slower-moving though influential contributor as ownership transitions from the honeymoon phase to the seven-year itch. Honda has been relatively consistent in quality perception, but with these new findings, it becomes a brand to monitor in future reports.

Quality
Brand 2012 (%)
Brand 2011 (%)
Toyota 19 Honda 25
Honda 19 Ford 23
Ford 19 Toyota 19
Mercedes-Benz 16 Chevrolet 16
Chevrolet 14 Mercedes-Benz 15

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for quality. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

Value

There is little change in the brands considered to be value leaders this year, though again, the percentage points for most of the top brands have edged downward. As the nation's economic challenges continue to linger, value remains a key new-car purchase factor. Consumers naturally want to get the most car for their money. This year's results indicate that few brands offer a distinct advantage in that area.

Among the leaders, Ford saw a significant drop this year. It could reflect that the pricey cars it has introduced in the cost-conscious small-car category—the Fiesta and Focus—have taken away some of the value cachet Ford previously held.

Hyundai has long targeted value as a brand virtue; this association continues in our latest survey. The brand has introduced new small cars this past year that build on that reputation, such as the Accent, Elantra, and most recently the Veloster. All three are competitive and compelling in their segments, standing out for their relative refinement and content levels.

Small cars do not ensure a perception of strong value. Among the worst performers, earning less than a single percent, are Fiat, Mini, and Smart.

If value is important to you, see Consumer Reports' ratings for Best New-Car Values, which combines our test scores, reliability ratings, and owner-cost estimates to show you which models provide the best bang for the buck.

The term "value" can be open to personal interpretation, but it is clear that car buyers are looking to get a good car at a good price. Value-conscious car shoppers can find significant savings on Consumer Reports-recommended vehicles. (See the Best New Car Deals.)

Value
Brand 2012 (%) Brand 2011 (%)
Ford 20 Ford 25
Toyota 19 Honda 24
Honda 17 Toyota 23
Hyundai 16 Hyundai 17
Chevrolet 14 Chevrolet 15

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for value. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

Performance

As in past years, car owners consider BMW to offer the ultimate performance machines. But its score dropped significantly from last year's 27 to only 19. This precipitous drop leaves the German automaker vulnerable to the two American brands known for a legacy of muscle—Ford and Chevrolet.

Ford's score, which has been relatively consistent, could have been buoyed by its iconic, and laudable, Mustang and its expanding range of well-received turbocharged engines. Another brand known for power, Chevrolet saw a minor drop in a year in which much focus was shifted toward fuel efficiency in its marketing.

Even a new 911 wasn't enough to allow Porsche to hold its second-place position. Just off the chart is newcomer Fisker. This prestige brand is just now reaching market with its Karma plug-in hybrid, but it nearly tied with stalwart Porsche.

Toyota's regular appearance in the top rankings signal that consumers consider performance to be more than acceleration and handling. With its clear market dominance in hybrids, Toyota has established a reputation for environmentally friendly vehicles that could be influencing its performance image.

Performance
Brand 2012 (%)
Brand 2011 (%)
BMW 19 BMW 27
Ford 17 Porsche 21
Chevrolet 17 Ford 19
Toyota 14 Chevrolet 19
Porsche 14 Audi 17

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for performance. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

Environmentally Friendly/Green

Toyota again leads the environmentally friendly/green category, most likely driven by the Prius and other hybrids, as well as some creative marketing. The brand did drop 8 percentage points, but it still stands tall among mainstream brands. We expect its strong showing to continue as it adds new variants to its Prius sub-brand.

Smart made a surprise showing this year, debuting in the top five despite having no new products or a sizable advertising budget. Its placement does raise the question of how green is truly perceived. The aptly named ForTwo scored just 28 points out of 100 in our comprehensive road test, making it one of the lowest-scoring vehicles we've tested in recent years. While it did return 39 mpg overall in our fuel economy tests, it requires premium fuel, undercutting any potential savings in operating costs. For the money, the Honda Fit is an excellent alternative, with great fuel economy, reliability, and overall test score. It isn't surprising to see Honda again claim the third position in the green rankings, with a solid reputation built on the company's dedication to reduced emissions and thrifty vehicles such as the Accord, Civic, and Fit.

Ford slipped slightly this year, despite introducing the new Fiesta and Focus small cars and backing them with highly visible marketing campaigns that included social media efforts and television show placements.

Somewhat surprising, however, is that after a year of seemingly endless headlines espousing the electrifying virtues of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, those brands didn't spring ahead in this factor. Chevrolet remained consistent with 12 percent, an apparent accomplishment given the trends in this year's survey. Nissan inched up about 2 percentage points, rounding to 8 percent.

Another unexpected result is that Hyundai increased just two-tenths of a percentage point, despite spreading word of its thrifty Sonata sedan—and hybrid version—as well as its new Accent and Elantra small cars. Further, official government figures continue to show Hyundai to be a true leader with its average fleet fuel economy.

Environmentally Friendly/Green
Brand 2012 (%) Brand 2011 (%)
Toyota 38 Toyota 46
Smart 32 Ford 18
Honda 16 Honda 17
Ford 16 Chevrolet 12
Chevrolet 12 Subaru 9

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for environmentally friendly/green. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

Design/Style

A commonly held misconception is that car shoppers buy based on styling. Our surveys repeatedly show that more practical considerations trump aesthetics. Still, in the end, no one wants to make payments on a vehicle that they become bored with down the road. This year, Cadillac shined above all others in car-owner perceptions. For Cadillac, the design consistency across its portfolio registers strongly. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have also shown strong consistency, with the carefully penned lines of their vehicles also standing out. Audi, which may have one of the most focused design executions of today's brands, just missed the top five by a fraction of a point, trailing Chevrolet.

Toyota has continued its decline. In 2010, it had 17 percent, while it now registers just 9 percent. During that time, the importance of design/style in purchase decisions has slid slightly from 25 percent to 24 this year.

Design/Style
Brand 2012 (%)
Brand 2011 (%)
Cadillac 17 BMW 22
BMW 15 Porsche 20
Mercedes-Benz 14 Cadillac 20
Lexus 14 Mercedes-Benz 18
Chevrolet 13 Lexus 17

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for design/style. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

Technology/Innovation

Among the seven factors tracked in the annual brand-perception survey, technology/innovation is the least valued by car owners and it is also the least dynamic. The results have proven quite consistent year over year, with the most notable shift for 2012 being that the category itself is gaining prominence in the industry.

Each of the top brands in this area offers sophisticated infotainment systems, expanding beyond high-quality audio to offer smart-phone integration and enhanced navigation systems. All have also been safety innovators; from Lexus integrating smart-throttle brake override technology to Ford offering seat-belt air bags. Further, each also offers hybrid, turbocharged, and/or diesel powertrains, tackling the technology challenge on multiple fronts.

While they appear well established, the technology leaders have newcomer Tesla nipping at their heels, with 13 percent. The California-based automotive start-up established its electric-car reputation with a sporty Roadster, and it is gaining prominence as a powertrain partner with Toyota. Soon, the company will offer a midsized electric sedan called the Model S, which may further elevate its brand awareness and prominence.

Technology/Innovation
Brand 2012 (%) Brand 2011 (%)
Mercedes-Benz 21 Toyota 22
Ford 19 Mercedes-Benz 22
Toyota 18 Ford 21
Lexus 15 Lexus 18
BMW 14 BMW 17

These are the top five brands that car owners consider the best in this category. The accompanying percentage reflects those respondents who are aware of the brand and named it their No. 1 choice for technology/innovation. See the results from 2011 for comparison.

   

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