This list shows the factors that car owners consider the most important when buying a new car. The percentage is based on the number of respondents who said the factor was among their top three priorities. We've included last year's figures to show changes.
The only significant change over last year is that people who listed "environmentally friendly/green" as one of their top three priorities is down eight percentage points. In a troubled economy, with gas prices relatively low, green in the wallet trumps environmental concerns for many.
In addition to asking for the top three factors, we also asked respondents to name their single most important factor in car buying. The only notable difference in those responses is that quality tops safety by a slim margin, and is up five percentage points over last year. In a down economy, this speaks to increasing consumer concern for well-made, reliable vehicles that promise lower operating costs and fewer headaches. (Learn more about vehicle reliability and owner costs.)
Safety continues to be a top consideration for consumers. But women deem it far more important than men, with 31 percent rating it as the top factor compared with 19 percent of men. (Quality was the primary factor for men.)
Volvo dominates this category. With almost three-quarters of respondents considering Volvo a leader in safety, it is clear that decades of engineering and marketing have resonated with consumers. Last year, Volvo introduced the XC60 crossover, claiming it is the safest Volvo ever.
Ford saw a slight increase in its safety-factor percentage, perhaps buoyed by its increasingly favorable overall reputation and possibly the integration of some Volvo technologies, such as blind-spot detection.
Subaru made a leap to third place, with 21 percent considering it to be a safety leader, compared with 11 percent last year. This has been a record sales year for Subaru, fueled by the impressive new Legacy and Outback, and the recently redesigned Forester. Every Subaru model provides all-wheel drive as standard equipment. And every current model has earned the coveted Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, despite a stringent new roof-crush test added to its frontal, side-impact, and rear-crash tests. No other automaker can make that claim.
Automakers in general have been making improvements to vehicle structures and safety systems over time, but not all cars provide comparable protection. It is important for shoppers to look beyond a list of features to see how they perform. Consumer Reports' safety ratings combine our own accident-avoidance tests and crash-test results from the government and insurance industry. (See the individual model pages for safety ratings.)
Toyota again secured the top spot for quality, and Honda repeated in second place. While quality can have broad-range interpretations, these two brands do routinely excel in our reliability ratings, according to the Consumer Reports Annual Autos Survey, with fewer repairs reported from our subscribers than most other makes.
Still, Toyota has had several high-profile recalls this year, including rusting pickup truck frames and a huge 3.8-million vehicle recall for potential floor-mat entrapment, which can lead to unintended acceleration.
Again, Ford showed marked gains, rising five percentage points for quality. Of the 51 Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln products in our Annual Autos Survey, 46 were rated average or better for predicted reliability. And some Ford models are among the most reliable in their class.
On the other hand, Mercedes-Benz slid from third place in the '09 Brand Perception survey with 23 percent down to fifth with 16 percent. This is out of synch with our latest reliability data, which shows that Mercedes has made much-needed improvements in reliability. Most Mercedes models are average or above, though there are some that trail the median.
A recurring theme through the perception factors is that reputations, good and bad, leave a lasting impression. This further underscores the need to research major purchases, rather than rely on assumptions.
Honda and Toyota are in a statistical tie for the brands perceived to deliver the most value. The data shows that the virtues of quality and value are not considered mutually exclusive in automobiles, as they can be with other products.
The real story is how the brands beneath Honda and Toyota were shuffled for 2010. Again Ford is on the rise, moving from fifth place last year to third place. And Chevrolet rose past Hyundai and Kia into fourth place.
Kia stood tall last year with a Value factor score of 27 percent. It slid down in this latest survey to 18 percent. Meanwhile, Subaru cracked the Top 10 with 12 percent. While Ford made the most dramatic gains, Subaru is clearly on the move. The latest Subaru models have performed well in our tests, are notably larger than those they replace, deliver much-improved fuel economy in some cases, and have essentially held the line on retail pricing. Bigger, better, and no more expensive is a winning formula.
While the term "value" can be open to personal interpretation, it is clear that car buyers are looking to get the most for their money, including 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.)