Ford leads in the factors that matter most to car shoppers

Cadillac, Honda, and Toyota lose ground, according to Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey

Last reviewed: January 2011
Ford
Ford on the rise
Climbing 35 points in two years, Ford now leads in the factors that matter most to car shoppers: Safety, quality, and value.

While consistently a dominant brand, Toyota has lost significant ground to Ford in consumer regard over the last two years, according to Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey. Now, the two brands rank a close first and second in overall perception, with Ford having a clear advantage in the factors that matter most to car shoppers: Safety, quality, and value.

The scores in our survey reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, design/style, technology/innovation, and environmentally friendly/green. Measuring across those categories gives us the total brand perception and does not directly represent the actual qualities of any brand's vehicles.

Ford has advanced by 35 points over the last two years to accumulate 144 total points this year. Meanwhile, Toyota has plummeted by 46 points and clings to a narrow lead this year with 147 points. Honda, in third place, has also lost ground, sliding 28 points since 2008.

A brand's reputation as being environmentally friendly or green continues to become a less important factor to car buyers. Only 28 percent of our respondents found it to be an important factor when considering a car. This is down by 4 percentage points since last year and by 12 points since 2008. This drop is probably a sign of the leaner economic times and unwillingness to spend more for green technologies. (See Survey: Americans want better fuel efficiency—but don't want to pay extra for it.)

Toyota still leads the environmentally friendly/green factor by a large margin, with a score of 46, compared to Ford, in second place at 18. Without that big Toyota victory in the green category, Ford would have clearly claimed the top overall score.

Best and worst in brand perception

The chart below shows the overall scores for the top and bottom 10 brands, according to Consumer Reports' 2011 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 on the Brand perception by category pages.

Overall brand perception
Best Worst
Brand Score Brand Score
Toyota 147 Isuzu 2
Ford 144 Suzuki 5
Honda 121 Mitsubishi 8
Chevrolet 102 Land Rover 9
BMW 93 Saab 10
Mercedes-Benz 90 Jaguar 13
Volvo 84 Mercury 14
Lexus 69 Jeep 16
Cadillac 66 Mini 19
Subaru 50 Volkswagen 19

Consumer perception has many influences, from hands-on experience and word of mouth to media reports and marketing. Because it may take time for experience and external influences to shape perceptions, they can be a lagging indicator and a predictor of future behavior.

Brand loyalty favors the domestics

Consumer Reports conducted similar polls during 2010 to measure the effect of the Toyota safety crisis on that brand. We found that consumers maintained strong brand loyalty and positive feelings toward Toyota, though support was flagging over time. Now, about a year and a half since an unintended acceleration tragedy in California threatened Toyota's reputation, we find there has been demonstrable effect on public perception. But purchase intent has not changed significantly.

The leading brands under consideration for the next new-car purchase remain the same as last year, though the order and percentages have changed. Ford remains the most popular make (18 percent), gaining one percentage point. Chevrolet ranks second with 13 percent overall. Toyota slid from 16 percent to 12 percent of consumers stating they are mostly likely to purchase from that brand. Combined, Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, and fourth-ranked Honda (10 percent) represent the majority of purchases that consumers say they are likely to make. When looking at what brands consumers are considering, as opposed to being most likely to purchase, those four brands are the leading purchase choices for nearly three-quarters of respondents.

It's important to remember that consumer brand perceptions often reflect distortions of reality. It pays to look beyond surface impressions and do your homework, especially in the areas that are most important to you.

ConsumerReports.org has a variety of tools that can help you to quickly and efficiently narrow down your choices, based on real-world test results, reliability data, owner costs, and other ratings. We also have recently expanded our premium offerings to include Cars Best Deals Plus, which provides the Bottom Line Price to help you get the best deal, full test-track reports from our engineers, and detailed reliability findings, so you can see what types of specific problems owners are experiencing.

How the scores were calculated

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey Dec. 2-6, 2010, contacting 2,019 adults. The Center collected the survey data from 1,721 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, divided by the total unaided mentions. (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.