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Survey Finds Americans See Less Difference between Car Brands in the Marketplace

Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet continue to lead in overall perception, but by a slimmer margin

Consumer ReportsYonkers, NY – The difference perceived by American consumer between the top car brands and the challengers is shrinking, according to the findings 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 Consumer Reports annual Car-Brand Perception Survey, maintained their top positions but have seen the point gap decrease. In fact, most of the top brands saw double-digit drops in their total scores.

“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,” said Jeff Bartlett, Consumer Reports deputy editor for autos online.

The Consumer Reports 2012 Car-Brand Perception 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 yields result in 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, or results from Consumer Reports testing.

The full results, including complete best and worst brand lists for all seven categories are available at www.ConsumerReports.org.

Toyota continues to dominate overall 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.

Safety Factor

Respondents indicated the most important factor in car buying continues to be safety (65 percent). The leading brands in overall perception in Consumer Reports survey typically excel in multiple categories. Volvo, however, has maintained a top 10 spot for years by virtue of its safety reputation alone.

This year, the brand took a dramatic 21 percentage point drop in this factor, from last year’s 70 to 49 percent. If it continues, this trend could drop Volvo out of the overall top 10 in future years and into the second tier.

Several other brands are down a few points this year in terms of safety, with Subaru notably dropping from 17 to 10 percent, and fell from the list of top five brands in terms of Safety. Toyota had taken a hit amid its large-scale recalls a couple years ago. But in the latest results, it has remained consistent at 13 percent, year over year, which elevated it to third place because of the other brands’ decreases.

Quality Factor

As in other areas, Consumer Reports survey found scores edging downward in the quality factor, with Toyota, Honda, and Ford now sharing a three-way tie for the top spot and the top brands in general having less of an advantage in perceived leadership. Honda lost six percentage points, while Toyota holds at 19 percentage points.

“Brand perception can be influenced by many things, from professional road tests to marketing. Word-of-mouth from friends and neighbors can be a slower moving, though influential contributor as ownership transitions from the initial honeymoon phase to the seven-year itch,” Bartlett said.

Performance Factor

As in past years, car owners consider BMW to offer the ultimate performance machines. But its score dropped significantly from last year’s 27 percent to only 19 percent. This precipitous drop leaves the German automaker vulnerable to the two American brands known for a legacy of muscle, Ford and Chevrolet.

Ford’s score, which has been relatively consistent, could have been buoyed by its iconic and laudable, Mustang and its expanding range of well-received turbocharged engines. Another brand known for power, Chevrolet saw a minor drop in a year where much focus was shifted toward fuel-efficiency in its marketing.

Even a new 911 wasn’t enough to allow Porsche to hold its second-place position. Just off the chart is newcomer Fisker. This prestige brand is just now reaching market with its Karma plug-in hybrid, but it nearly tied with stalwart Porsche in perception, though awareness is relatively low.

Environmentally Friendly/ Green Factor

Toyota again leads the environmentally friendly/green category, likely driven by the Prius and other hybrids, as well as some creative marketing. The brand did drop eight percentage points, but it still stands tall among mainstream brands.

Smart made a surprise showing this year, debuting in the top five, despite having no new products or a sizable advertising budget. Honda again claimed the third position in the green rankings, with a solid reputation built on the company’s dedication to reduced emissions and thrifty vehicles such as the Accord, Civic, and Fit.

Ford slipped slightly this year, despite introducing the new Fiesta and Focus small cars and backing them with highly visible marketing campaigns that included social media efforts and television show placements.

Somewhat surprising, however, is that, after a year of seemingly endless headlines espousing the electrifying virtues of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, those brands didn’t spring ahead in this factor. Chevrolet remained consistent with 12 percentage points, an apparent accomplishment given the trends in this year’s survey. Nissan inched up about two percentage points, rounding to eight percent.

How Consumer Reports Car-Brand Perception scores were calculated

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey of 2,045 adults from December 1st-5th, 2011, and collected survey data from 1,702 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 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 an exemplar of the particular attribute, again corrected for awareness.

About Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications.  Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

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