Consumer Reports' latest survey results are another ding for Toyota. While Honda and Ford have made gains in brand loyalty, Toyota's brand loyalty among consumers has dipped 13 percent, causing it to fall from the top position it held at the end of 2009. Honda is in first place now, with 68 percent of Honda owners described as "likely to purchase another Honda for their next new car," followed by Ford with 61 percent loyalty and Toyota with 57 percent.

While Toyota's fall may be the result of negative perception in the marketplace as a result of the brand's recall fiasco, it still made $1.2 billion in the first quarter of this year. North American sales were down but didn't bottom out thanks to higher incentive spending, sales rose elsewhere around the world, and the company is reaping the benefit of cost savings enacted last year. A drop from a close first to a close third after more than eight million cars have been recalled isn't so bad, and with $20 billion in cash, the company has the money, and apparently the time and mindset, to keep the ship moving.

The other two makes that CR mentions, Chevrolet and Dodge, both lost ground: Chevy dipped five percent in brand loyalty from February to April (from 57 to 52 percent), Dodge dropped four percent in the same period (from 28 to 24 percent).

[Source: Consumer Reports | Image: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty]
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CONSUMER REPORTS AUTO PULSE SURVEY: TOYOTA DOWN, FORD AND HONDA UP IN BRAND LOYALTY

YONKERS, NY - Car owners are generally a brand-loyal group, but Toyota's highly visible problems with quality and safety have shaken and rearranged the competitive landscape, according to repeated surveys conducted over the past few months by Consumer Reports.

The once dominant automaker that led in brand loyalty in Consumer Reports' December 2009 Brand Perceptions survey continues to lose ground, primarily to Ford and Honda, according to new findings by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Since December, there have been no changes in the rank order of the top four makes that respondents said they drive most often, nor for the make of the next prospective new car--often from another brand. However, when it comes to loyalty (will the car owner buy a new model from the same brand?) consumer preferences continue to shift.

To gauge how the volatile automotive market is changing brand preferences, the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey using a nationally representative probability sample of households. In April, 1,704 interviews were completed among adults whose household owns at least one vehicle.

Which automakers lead in brand loyalty
Honda has the highest brand loyalty, with 68 percent of current owners likely to purchase another Honda for their next new car.

Ford has the next most-loyal owner base at 61 percent. This marks a notable 10 percent increase from just two months ago for the Blue Oval. Because of this increased loyalty, Ford bumped Toyota from its position as the brand with the second-most loyal customers.

Since December, Toyota has seen its brand loyalty decrease 13 percentage points, although the company still stands in a strong third place with 57 percent of owners saying they'll buy another. Between December and February, Toyota's loyalty dropped 10 percentage points. But the trend appears to be slowing, as the company has seen just a 3 percentage point drop since our February survey. (Note that this survey was conducted just prior to the Lexus GX 460's being given a "Don't Buy: Safety Risk " designation based on Consumer Reports testing. A fix has since been developed by Lexus and a recall is underway.)

Meanwhile, Chevrolet's and Dodge's loyalty continue to slide, from 57 and 32 percent, respectively, in the December survey to 52 and 28 percent in February and 49 and 24 percent in Consumer Reports April survey.

Car brand reputation clearly carries much sway with shoppers, though a large number of consumers can look past the company to focus on a specific model. Consumer Reports advises car shoppers to focus on buying the best car for their needs and budget based on research-not just reputation.

"Each year, we see through our car reliability survey and our testing that all automakers have some models that are better than others. And over time, performance can change, making assumptions based on past experience and reputation risky," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor online, Consumer Reports Cars.

To assess brand loyalty, Consumer Reports focused only on the five most popular makes the survey respondents say they currently drive: Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Honda, and Toyota. The chart below shows how the top brands scored and details the percentage of current owners who feel they will most likely buy a new car from the same brand next time they are in the market. It compares findings from other, recent surveys conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

To understand how consumers apply their brand perceptions, CR asked when considering a new car to purchase, whether brand or car reputation was more important. Slightly more than half (54 percent) of vehicle owners said that the overall reputation of the brand is the leading factor motivating the choice of a new car, and this preference was relatively consistent across all demographic segments. Fewer respondents at 39 percent said that the reputation of the specific car model under consideration was most important.

For more information on Consumer Reports Car Brand Loyalty surveys, Reliability information and testing results check out www.ConsumerReports.org.

With more than 7 million print and online subscribers, Consumer Reports is one of the most trusted sources for information and advice on consumer products and services. It conducts the most comprehensive auto-test program of any U.S. publication or Web site and owns and operates a 327-acre Auto Test Center in Connecticut. The organization's auto experts have decades of experience in driving, testing, and reporting on cars. To subscribe, consumers can call 1-800-234-1645 or visit www.ConsumerReports.org.