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2014 Car-Brand Perception Survey

Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet continue to dominate in consumers’ minds

Published: February 2014

Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet continue to top the rankings in Consumer Reports’ annual Car-Brand Perception Survey, standing out as the leading brands in consumers’ minds. These perennial leaders have a significant advantage in overall score, but several other brands—including Tesla—are moving up the rankings.

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

The key word here is “perception,” as influenced by word-of-mouth, marketing, and hands-on experience. Often, perception can be a trailing indicator, reflecting years of good or bad performance in a category, and it can also be swayed by headlines, such as Subaru and Tesla garnering awards, or brands being caught in widespread recalls, such as Honda, Jeep, and Toyota.

For 2014, Toyota has a 25-point advantage over second-place Ford, reflecting a five-point gain over the previous year for Toyota and a three-point improvement for Ford. It could be interpreted that the safety concerns that saw the Toyota score stumble a few years ago have faded, returning the brand to its position as the perceived industry leader.

Honda lost 16 points this year, while Chevrolet seemed to find them, increasing its score by 13 points.

The brand to watch is Tesla Motors, which jumped from 47 points last year, to fifth position and 88 points this year. Tesla had a strong, very public year, with soaring stock prices, magazine awards, sterling crash-test performance, and even claiming the spot as the top-rated car by Consumer Reports. Innovation, performance, and sleek styling is clearly gaining attention and making a positive impression. By accumulating points in several categories, Tesla was able to raise its overall score. This highlights the value of being good at multiple things, rather than relying on a single facet.

That the remainder of the Top 10 all score 73 or higher is notable, for last year, there was a wider points spread among the high-ranking brands. Many brands impress consumers, creating a challenge for automakers to distinguish themselves in the fast-moving marketplace. Likewise, consumers need to determine where to spend their money.

Best and worst in brand perception

The chart below shows the overall scores for the top and bottom 10 brands, according to the 2014 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 categories. They are rounded to the nearest whole number and weighted for the reported importance of the factor. The top five brands in each category are listed below. The categories are listed in rank order of importance to consumers.

Overall brand perception
Best Worst
Brand Score Brand Score
Toyota 145 Land Rover 4
Ford 120 Maserati 8
Honda 109 Jaguar 9
Chevrolet 105 Rolls-Royce 11
Tesla Motors 88 Scion 17
Subaru 87 Ram
17
Mercedes-Benz 82 Mini 21
Volvo 80 Mitsubishi 21
Cadillac 78 Infiniti  22
BMW 73 Jeep 23

How the scores were calculated

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey from Dec. 6 to 15, 2013, and collected survey data from 1,578 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 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.

Factor 2014 (%)
2013 (%)
Quality 90 90
Safety
88 88
Performance 83 83
Value 82 83
Fuel economy
81 81
Design/style 70 65
Technology/innovation 68 65

Quality

The top factor for car buyers remains quality, scoring 90 points this year and last. What has changed is the number of brands that are distinguished by this attribute. In 2013, we had four brands show a clear advantage; this year, there are six that stand out from the herd, including Cadillac in sixth place.

Toyota has an advantage here, with the other brands clustered close behind. Seeing the brands that are considered exemplar for this virtue underscores how “quality” can be broadly interpreted, ranging from tactile first impressions to long-term durability.

In our Annual Auto Survey, based on data collected on 1.1 million vehicles, the brands with the fewest reliability issues reported per vehicle creates a much different list. This year, the most reliable brands are Lexus, Toyota, Acura, Audi, and Mazda. In terms of true reliability, Honda ranks 8th, Mercedes-Benz 13th, Chevrolet 17th, and Ford 26th.

The key lesson from both surveys is to do your research. While 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 2014 (%)
Brand 2013 (%)
Toyota 23 Honda 21
Mercedes-Benz 21 Toyota 21
Ford 19 Mercedes-Benz 19
Chevrolet 19 Ford 19
Honda 19 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 the brand as their number one choice for quality.

Safety

Volvo has long hung its hat on safety, and this focus continues to pay off. In the minds of consumers, there is a single, clear choice. The Swedish brand increased its lead this year, potentially aided by public awareness of advanced safety features in general, and Volvo’s continued efforts to remain on the forefront of safety technology. The real news this year is the ascension of Subaru. This modest-scale automaker has made big news over the last year with its “good” crash-test performance, among other accomplishments. All its models, except for the aged Tribeca, have earned coveted Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Other brands have largely held their own position year over year.  It will be a challenge for automakers to close the gap with Volvo, but Subaru demonstrates that it is possible with consistent performance across a model range.

Safety
Brand 2014 (%) Brand 2013 (%)
Volvo 60 Volvo 53
Subaru 30 Ford 19
Toyota 19 Honda 18
Ford 17 Toyota 17
Honda 16 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.

Performance

That performance is even a top car-buying factor means the tough economy can’t keep down driving enthusiasm. Of course, the definition of performance has evolved over time to mean much more than raw power. As we have seen in recent years, standout brands tend to offer a balance of sporty and fuel-efficient models. Chevrolet exemplifies this concept, as it takes the lead for 2014 propelled by the Corvette Stingray, Camaro, and SS, with the Cruze diesel and extended-range hybrid Volt probably proving to be factors, as well. BMW remains in second place, bolstered by hot M models and turbocharged engines that strive to improve acceleration and fuel efficiency, plus its electrified i3 and i8. Audi breaks into the top-tier for performance this year, driven by sporty S and RS models, as well as increased availability of diesel engines.

When it comes to exotic performance, Lamborghini edged out Ferrari this year, probably aided by its recent poster-worthy new cars and concepts. The top 10 here rounds out with Toyota, Ferrari, Porsche, Dodge, and Subaru—all brands with a compelling performance story to tell.

Performance
Brand 2014 (%)
Brand 2013 (%)
Chevrolet 22 Ferrari 20
BMW 20 BMW 20
Ford 18 Chevrolet 19
Audi 17 Ford 18
Lamborghini 16 Honda 16

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.

Value

Consumers remain value conscious, looking to get the most for their money. With cars, that means looking beyond the purchase price to what the vehicle delivers for that cash. Here, we see consistent year-over-year rankings, with the same five automakers topping the chart. The twist for 2014 is that the corporate siblings Hyundai and Kia have traded places, with about an eight-point difference each year separating the two. Clearly, both have the potential to rightfully shine in this area, but their volatile movements suggest owners keep seeing them in different lights, perhaps influenced by the visibility of Hyundai’s special recession-proof financing guarantees and introduction of new, compelling—and reasonably priced—products.

For Consumer Reports, we look at value as a balance of overall road test score, reliability, and five-year owner costs. Analyzed in this fashion, we tend to find mainstream, fuel-efficient models rise to the top—the same types of cars that these leading brands offer.

See our complete report on best and worst new car values.

Value
Brand 2014 (%) Brand 2013 (%)
Toyota 25 Toyota 24
Honda 21 Honda
22
Ford 20 Ford 20
Kia 18 Hyundai 19
Chevrolet 16 Chevrolet 16

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.

Fuel Economy

Toyota also owns fuel economy, aided by its pioneering Prius hybrid and its continued benchmark performance, with 44 mpg overall in Consumer Reports’ tests. But this is a trait that all automakers are chasing, spurred by government regulation and consumer demand, leaving the secondary players jockeying for position. Smart jumped up 10 points this year, despite not offering a new product. Consumers clearly recognize the tiny ForTwo as an efficient machine, although as sales reflect, it is not a desirable one for most. Honda continues to hover near the top, with its continued focus on efficiency. Notable in our tests has been the four-cylinder Accord with fuel economy that shames smaller cars (30 mpg overall, 40 mpg highway), making a strong case for stretching the budget for a larger, roomier, and likely safer vehicle. Tesla and Volkswagen crashed the party this year, with increased recognition for their accomplishments. The electric Tesla Model S garnered much attention this year for its combination of gas-free luxury and performance, with ample range that encourages some buyers to see it as a replacement for traditional car. Volkswagen continues to carve a notable niche with its efficient diesel powertrains, now joined by a hybrid in the Jetta line. (The hybrid and diesel Jettas each get 45 mpg highway.) Ford and Chevrolet were bumped by these brands rising, but their performance is similar to last year.

See our complete guide to fuel economy.

Fuel Economy
Brand 2014 (%) Brand 2013 (%)
Toyota 40 Toyota 40
Smart 33 Honda 29
Honda 26 Smart 23
Tesla 22 Ford 16
Volkswagen 20 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 fuel economy.

Design/Style

Notably less important than the factors covered above, design/style still plays a vital role in driving car purchases. Truly a subjective measure, design continues to be led by the prestige brands. Clearly, their stylists are doing their jobs and making a sizable impression. But, their lead is slight and vulnerable to the fickle tides of public tastes. We’ve seen mainstream brands be increasingly daring in recent years, and several have invested in upscale exterior dressing, such as extensive chrome trim and LED lights, to grab attention. The top 10 here is rounded out with Ford, Lexus, Ferrari, Tesla, and Dodge. It would be hard to argue than any of these brands don’t offer distinctive eye candy.

Design/Style
Brand 2014 (%)
Brand 2013 (%)
BMW 20 Audi 19
Cadillac 20 Cadillac 18
Audi 20 BMW 17
Mercedes-Benz 20 Lexus 17
Chevrolet 18 Ford 16

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.

Technology/Innovation

The least important car-buyer factor rated in this survey, technology/innovation, is still a significant consideration for many consumers. Automakers are racing to offer the latest, greatest infotainment and advanced safety features. And consequently, brochures and advertising are overflowing with similar-sounding systems from across the industry, making it difficult for brands to distinguish themselves. But this year, Tesla has done so, giving the fresh brand a commanding lead in this year’s rankings. Its Model S sedan is a rolling showcase for vanguard technology, with its potential 225-plus-mile electric-only range, gigantic touch screen control interface, motorized door handles, and available third-row seat. With the Model S, surprises and delights are bountiful.

The other top brands all have focused on consumer-facing technology, though with mixed results. The much-ballyhooed infotainment systems from these brands all leave something to be desired.

When asked about the technology that matters most, survey respondents shied away from text-to-voice for social networking and mobile Wi-Fi. Instead, their interest is on more common denominators, such as side air bags, blind-spot detection, and navigation. It is clear that brands will struggle to differentiate themselves in this area; perhaps the availability of such premium features in mainstream models may be way to reach more buyers.

We caution shoppers to look beyond the hype to understand if these added-cost systems are truly worthwhile and if they work as anticipated. In our road tests, where we chronicle highlights of using such systems, we sometimes find frustrations. And certain features, such as infotainment systems, can be genuine reliability concerns. (Read: “High-tech automotive headaches.”)

Technology/Innovation
Brand 2014 (%) Brand 2013 (%)
Tesla 34 Toyota 20
Mercedes-Benz 20 Mercedes-Benz 19
Toyota 20 Cadillac 19
Ford 19 Ford 19
BMW 18 Lexus 16

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.

Bottom line

Automakers continue to vie for consumer mindshare and dollars by developing compelling new models engineered to drive sales and profits. As a smart shopper, the key is to look beyond the hype to the virtues that matter most to you and ensure you’re buying a product that truly excels based on real-world tests, rather than merely perceptions or empty marketing slogans.

Perceptions often stray from reality. Fortunately, there is a broad array of information available online. ConsumerReports.org subscribers will find the car model pages include road tests, pricing, owner satisfaction, owner costs, reliability, and safety information all geared toward making an informed decision.

   

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