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2013 Car Brand Perception Survey

Consumers rank Toyota, Ford, and Honda above the competition

Published: February 2013
Brand perception
Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet are at the top, but the margins are smaller.

The latest Consumer Reports’ Car Brand Perception Survey again shows that the perceived difference between brands is shrinking. Even with a slight year-over-year score shift, the top automotive brands remain Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet. However, newcomer Tesla is on the rise.

For 2013, Toyota has a 15-point advantage with its 133-point overall brand perception score over second-ranked Ford. Toyota boasted a more dramatic lead in 2010, which faded after the company’s safety concerns and recalls dominated headlines a few years ago, but since then, Toyota has edged back up.

Ford remains in a solid second-place (118 points), with Honda retaining third place (114 points), yet jumping 20 points over last year. The top six brands overall finished in the same rank order as in 2012.

Based on data collected from a random, nationwide survey, the scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven categories: quality, safety, value, performance, design/style, technology/innovation, and environmentally friendly/green. 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. (See the 2014 Car-Brand Perception survey. Note: While the results may be similar, a slight change in the methodology means the specific data cannot be compared year over year between the articles. This is addressed in the 2014 report.)

This last year brought stability to much of the automotive industry. Bankruptcies, brand closures, and lackluster sales were history for some companies. Instead, we saw new models introduced emphasizing design and fuel economy. Also, there is an increase in car sales spurred by an aging national fleet. Yet, the brand awareness for many brands has declined, including BMW, Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Hyundai, and Nissan. It is harder for companies to compete for share of mind, a situation perhaps exaggerated in years dominated by election and disaster news coverage.

In looking at how the brands rank, it is clear that it takes more than a single ad campaign or new product for most brands to connect with consumers and earn their favor. The rare exception is Tesla, a small, electric-car builder that has garnered awards for its new Model S sedan and made a notable splash in this latest survey. Tesla made the Top 10 list last year with an overall 42-point score, and this year, it again holds the 10th spot with a higher 55 points.

The real party crasher this year is Dodge. With its 56 points, Dodge bumped Lexus from the best list, as that luxury brand saw its score rise just seven points to 50 points for 2013 from the previous year against Dodge’s 23-point gain. While most brands excel in select areas, counting on just a couple or a few factors for their points, Dodge made the cut this year with modest showings across the board. And that was despite Chrysler Corp.'s separating the Ram truck group from Dodge. Its strongest categories were performance (14 points) and design/style (13 points), with the weakest showing being environmentally friendly/green (3 points). Not all brands can be everything to everyone.

Best and worst in brand perception

The chart below shows the overall scores for the top and bottom 10 brands, according to the 2013 Car Brand Perception Survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Overall scores are an aggregate, reflecting a brand’s total perception level across seven areas. They are rounded to the nearest whole number and weighted for the reported importance of the factor. 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 133 Scion 6
Ford 118 Mitsubishi 6
Honda 114 Ram 7
Chevrolet 94 Fiat 8
Mercedes-Benz 77 Mini 10
Volvo 77 Land Rover
11
Cadillac 66 Jaguar 15
BMW 66 Mazda 16
Dodge 57 Jeep 16
Tesla 55 Porsche 21

Rather than shop based on perceptions, 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 access to CR's Bottom Line Prices, which can 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 2,034 adults from Dec. 6-16, 2012, and collected survey data from 1,764 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 exemplar across all seven categories, weighted by category importance, and 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 a leader for 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.

Factor 2013 (%)
2012 (%)
Quality 90 89
Safety
88 90
Value 83 85
Performance 82 83
Design style
65 65
Technology/innovation 65 68
Environmentally friendly/green
62 65

Quality and safety remain top factors for consumers, followed closely by value and performance. These factors have been tops for years, with quality and value putting a natural emphasis on checkbook issues. We see green concerns fall to the bottom when looked at from a financial perspective. Consistent with findings in past surveys, there remains a genuine interest in environmental aspects, but for many consumers, the green in the wallet drives more purchasing decisions.

Women deemed safety and environmental friendliness significantly more important than men did. The only factor on which men put a greater importance than women did was design/style.

Quality

Four brands again dominate the quality car-buying factor, having clearly established an identity around this important hallmark. While a consistent top performer in this category, Honda saw a significant 6-point dip from 2011 to 2012, potentially influenced by a spate of lackluster products. Clearly, things are turning around in perception with the slight increase for 2013. Likewise, we have seen our perceptions change based on our recent experience with the improved Civic and the impressive all-new Accord.

Quality can be measured through multiple means, including road test scores and reliability. In our latest Annual Auto Survey, which collected reliability data on more than 1.2 million vehicles, we saw Toyota ranked 2nd, Honda 6th, Mercedes-Benz 14th, Ford 27th, and Chevrolet 15th. Reliability is just one facet of quality, but that data paints a much different picture than this survey, providing further evidence that perception and reality can differ.

The key lesson from both surveys is to do your research. While a brand reputation has merit, the quality of individual models can span a broad spectrum in any brand portfolio. (Learn more about car reliability.)

Quality
Brand 2013 (%)
Brand 2012 (%)
Honda 21 Toyota 19
Toyota 21 Honda 19
Mercedes-Benz 19 Ford 19
Ford
19 Mercedes-Benz 16
Chevrolet 15 Chevrolet 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 the brand as their number one choice for quality. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

Safety

At a time when crash test standards are becoming increasing stringent and electronic safety aids are proliferating in the market, a standout safety reputation is hard won. Volvo has excelled in this area for years, and it continues to shine in this prized factor.

Back in 2010, Volvo netted 70 points for safety. That score has slid down over the years to a low of 49 points in 2012. It bounced back to 53 points this year, preserving the commanding advantage Volvo enjoys over the second-ranked Ford. This score again is high enough to buoy the Volvo brand into the Top 10 overall. And as we’ve said in the past, Volvo would be a more formidable competitor if it could elevate its perception in other areas. Plus, Volvo certainly doesn’t have the market cornered on the latest safety technology.

Safety
Brand 2013 (%) Brand 2012 (%)
Volvo 53 Volvo 49
Ford 19 Ford 18
Honda 18 Toyota 13
Toyota 17 Honda 13
Subaru 15 Mercedes-Benz 12

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 the brand as their number one choice for safety. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

Value

In a tough economy, it is natural that consumers will be looking to get the most for their money. This year, we see Toyota and Honda gain a significant advantage in this area, while overachiever Hyundai and favorite Chevrolet also gain points.

Toyota and Honda have long had a reputation for high resale value, though the strong scores from other brands suggests that consumers are emphasizing purchase price and equipment. This factor can be a challenge for consumers to compare, and we would encourage looking at not just the retail price, but the transaction price, as well—what car buyers are actually paying. Ford, for example, skews toward the pricier end in some segments, yet incentives and negotiations often make the prices more competitive. (Consumer Reports’ Cars Best Deals Plus includes unlimited access to transaction prices and much more.)

Not seen in the chart, Nissan rose to the 7th position this year, while Mercedes-Benz and Dodge booted Subaru and Acura out of the top 10. Cadillac slipped to last place.

When Consumer Reports determines value, we factor road-test scores, predicted-reliability scores, and five-year owner costs to get a complete picture of how good a car is and what its financial picture looks like. (See the best new-car values.) In our latest analysis, we found that the Toyota Prius offers the best value for your automotive dollar, unseating the Honda Fit. Toyota and Lexus models placed at the top of six of the 10 categories we analyzed. Remember: Just because a car is inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s a good value.

Value
Brand 2013 (%) Brand 2012 (%)
Toyota 24 Ford 20
Honda 22 Toyota
19
Ford 20 Honda 17
Hyundai 19 Hyundai 16
Chevrolet 16 Chevrolet 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 the brand as their number one choice for value. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

Performance

The performance leaders are tightly clustered, with scant points separating them. The intriguing news here is that sports-car purveyor Ferrari has elbowed its way to the top, bumping Porsche just off the chart to 6th place. With its consistent “Ultimate driving machine” marketing message and enthusiast-targeted product line, BMW remains a category leader.

Chevrolet and Ford are perennial standouts, aided by motorsports involvement, massive marketing budgets, potent muscle cars, mighty V8 engines, and more recently, forced-induction powerplants. Honda’s placement, and Toyota’s a few positions lower, is trickier to interpret. It may well be that the definition of performance over time has come to mean much more than acceleration and handling, encompassing powertrain refinement and fuel efficiency. This appears consistent with past-year’s rankings and speaks fairly to the latest Honda and Toyota offerings.

Performance
Brand 2013 (%)
Brand 2012 (%)
Ferrari 20 BMW 19
BMW 20 Ford 17
Chevrolet 19 Chevrolet 17
Ford 18 Toyota 14
Honda 16 Porsche 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 the brand as their number one choice for performance. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

Design/Style

In the sheet-metal beauty contest, Audi is crowned the winner this year. The German luxury brand excels in design consistency, with its entire product line being immediately identifiable as an Audi. Neither garish nor understated, the current models project luxury. The score may be aided by the once-gaping grille arguably becoming more tastefully rendered in the current lineup.

Cadillac’s sharp-edged styling continues to find favor, as does BMW’s striking bodywork. Typically conservative, Lexus held its rank this year. It will be interesting to compare its rank next year to see how well the new “spindle” grille design is received, as it spreads across the model range.

Ford rose several positions this year, while Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet, and Toyota registered a loss. Dodge and Jaguar broke into the top 10, bumping off Acura and Ferrari.

Design/Style
Brand 2013 (%)
Brand 2012 (%)
Audi 19 Cadillac 17
Cadillac 18 BMW 15
BMW 17 Mercedes-Benz 14
Lexus 17 Lexus 14
Ford 16 Chevrolet 13

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 the brand as their number one choice for design/style. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

Technology/Innovation

Technology/innovation remained near the bottom in terms of importance to consumers, even though we frequently hear shoppers are prizing smart-phone compatibility and infotainment above other more traditional car attributes. It may be that shoppers have high expectations for their new cars, yet don’t see this as a key brand differentiator. It certainly isn’t for lack of trying on the automakers’ part—some more successfully than others.

All five top-ranked brands in this area offer sophisticated infotainment systems, expanding beyond high-quality audio to offer smart-phone integration and enhanced navigation systems. All have also been safety innovators, from Ford offering safety-belt air bags to the Mercedes-Benz serving up a drowsy-driver alert system. Further, each brand also offers hybrid, turbocharged, and/or diesel powertrains, tackling the technology challenge on multiple fronts.


Tesla took 6th place again, putting the established brands on notice that this pioneering electric car company is gaining prominence.

Technology/Innovation
Brand 2013 (%) Brand 2012 (%)
Toyota 20 Mercedes-Benz 21
Mercedes-Benz 19 Ford 19
Cadillac 19 Toyota 18
Ford 19 Lexus 15
Lexus 16 BMW 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 the brand as their number one choice for technology/innovation. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

Environmentally Friendly/Green

Toyota owns the environmentally friendly/green factor, with a commanding lead each year and a higher score for 2013. The company’s hybrid technology is impressive. But that Smart ranks second place shows a curious vulnerability. Despite its snappy brand name, the Smart offerings are not the brightest products. The ForTwo coupe scored just 28 points of out 100 in our testing, making it one of the lowest-scoring vehicles on the market. While it did return 39 mpg overall in our fuel economy tests, it requires premium fuel, undercutting any potential savings in operating costs.

Here, again, we see the ascension of Tesla, nudging out Honda in the rankings. This is no small feat. Honda has long made green issues a company priority. (Arguably, its greenness dates back to before it built cars and it manufactured motorized bicycles.) When Honda came to America, it established itself as a source for fuel-efficient models. Fast-forward a few decades, and today, Honda is fully dedicated to energy efficiency and low emissions in cars, motorcycles, and small engines. And yet, Tesla has nudged aside this corporate giant in the rankings.

The weakest showings were from BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Infiniti, Mazda, Porsche, and Ram, none of which garnered more than a single point.

Environmentally Friendly/Green
Brand 2013 (%) Brand 2012 (%)
Toyota 42 Toyota 38
Smart 32 Smart 32
Tesla 19 Honda 16
Honda 18 Ford 16
Ford 17 Chevrolet 12

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 the brand as their number one choice for environmentally friendly/green. The results from 2012 are presented for comparison.

The perceived takeaway

It is hard to predict what the year ahead will bring, but the competition to shape consumer perceptions and buying behaviors will rage on. For established brands, the challenge remains to stand out from rivals, while being true to the core values. For small outfits like Smart and Tesla, the key is to build on their reputation and not be overshadowed by the larger players. The year-to-year changes do show that no company can sit on its laurels.

For consumers, it is important to remember the lesson that perception isn’t reality, and that research is needed before buying a new or used car.  

   

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