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.