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Consumer Reports has just released its latest brand perception study, and for the first time, Ford seems to be giving Toyota a run for its money. According to CR, the two brands are nearly tied up, though Ford has edged ahead in categories like safety, quality and value. The Blue Oval has been gaining serious ground recently – jumping 35 percentage points in the study in just two years. Meanwhile, Toyota has seen its score fall by 45 percentage points in the same period of time.

The study measures each brand across a handful of categories, including safety, quality, value, performance, design/style, technology/innovation and environmentally friendly/green. Scores are then averaged to generate a total brand perception. Consumer Reports notes that Toyota still leads the green category by leaps and bounds with a score of 46, though interestingly, it notes that buyers seem to be less and less concerned with just how environmentally friendly their vehicles are. Ford, meanwhile holds onto just 18 percentage points in the same category. Hit the jump for the full press blast.

[Source: Consumer Reports]
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CONSUMER REPORTS CAR BRAND PERCEPTION SURVEY:
CONSUMERS SAY FORD LEADS PACK IN FACTORS THAT MATTER MOST


Toyota and Honda take back seat to Ford in safety, quality and value

YONKERS, NY ? Consumers believe the Ford brand has gained considerable ground as perennial leader Toyota has declined over the past two years, according to Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey. While the two car companies are in a statistical dead heat, Ford excels in the factors that consumers say matter most: safety, quality and value.

Over a two-year period, Ford has climbed by 35 percentage points as Toyota has plummeted by 46 points, with total scores of 144 and 147, respectively. A year ago, Toyota retained a substantial lead over Ford and Honda, the No. 2 and No. 3 makes in terms of the strongest or most favorable car brand. In 2010, however, Toyota finished only slightly ahead of Ford, which widened its advantage over Honda. Honda has continued to lose ground, sliding 28 points since 2008.

The scores in the 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 provides the total brand perception and does not directly represent the actual qualities of any brand's vehicles.

Ford built on the momentum seen in last year's study, likely the result of a model lineup with improving performance, reliability and styling. At the same time, the massive recalls announced by Toyota earlier this year contributed to the tarnishing of its public image as measured in the poll.

One area where Toyota maintained a significant lead is in a category that continues to become less important to consumers: environmentally friendly/green. Toyota leads the category by a large margin, with a score of 46, compared to second-place Ford at 18. Without that big Toyota victory in the green category, Ford would have clearly claimed the top overall score.

The survey also found that the environmentally friendly/green factor continues to drop with only 28% of consumers finding it to be an important factor, down by 4 percentage points since last year and by 12 points since 2008. This drop is likely a sign of the leaner economic times and unwillingness to spend more for green technologies.

The ten most recognizable brands based on the perception of car owners are: Toyota (147), Ford (144), Honda (121), Chevrolet (102), BMW (93), Mercedes-Benz (90), Volvo (84), Lexus (69), Cadillac (66), and Subaru (50). Honda and Chevrolet retained their third and fourth place finishes, while BMW leapt over Volvo and Mercedes-Benz to capture fifth place.

The four brands with a double-digit drop in brand perception are Toyota (-49 points), Subaru (-31 points), Chevrolet (-22 points) and Lexus (-11 points). After a 23-point jump last year, Subaru went in reverse to dip below its 2008 number.

THE MOST IMPORTANT NEW-CAR-BUYING FACTORS:

Safety (65%), quality (57%), and value (51%) continued to be the most important factors for consumers who are considering the purchase of a new car. These categories maintain more weight than performance (47%), environmentally friendly or green (28%), design or style (25%) and technology or innovation (17%). The only significant change was the continued decline of environmentally friendly/green, down a dozen percentage points from 2008.

For more results from Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey and more information on how to choose a new vehicle, visit www.ConsumerReports.org/cars.

SAFETY:

Volvo (70%) is the undeniable leader in the minds of consumers in the safety category, with a dramatic 50-point advantage over second-place Ford (20%). This margin elevates the Chinese-owned brand to top ten status overall. Without leadership in this factor, Volvo would blend in with second-tier brands in consumers' minds. Still, Volvo slid a bit in the safety category this year. The movement may be because Volvo has not played the safety drumbeat as loudly as in the past during the transition to new ownership.

Other brands lost ground, but only slightly and without statistical significance. It is possible that in the year ahead, the results from the more-stringent government crash test rating system may influence future perceptions. Among the 2011 models tested thus far, only the Honda Accord has earned five stars across the board – a feat that was commonplace just a year ago.

QUALITY:

Recalls over the past 18 months have put a major dent in Toyota's hard-won public reputation as a leader in quality. Honda (25%) and Ford (23%) accelerated past Toyota (19%), as the previous year's leader dropped 11 percentage points. Chevrolet (16%) and Mercedes-Benz (15%) rounded out the top five.

The brand perception survey mirrors the recent Consumer Reports' vehicle reliability study that ranked Toyota as sixth, down three places from the prior year. The study ranked Honda and Ford higher than Toyota, each without a single model showing reliability below or merely at the industry average.

Aside from Toyota, the quality leaders in the survey remain consistent. Of those top five, only Mercedes-Benz's appearance among them contrasts how perception differs from reality. While most Mercedes models fare well in Consumer Reports' tests and are enjoyable to drive, the brand ranks 22nd in predicted reliability – down four spots from the previous year.

VALUE:
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. In terms of value, Ford (25%) edged out Honda (24%) and Toyota (23%), as the brand moved up from third place last year. Consistent with elsewhere in the survey, consumers' perception of Toyota has dropped, while their perception of Ford has risen as Honda pulls a respectable second-place finish.

The five brands that lead the list also include Hyundai (17%) and Chevrolet (15%), which traded positions from the previous study. The year-to-year movement for most brands in the survey suggests that the rollout of new models and their associated marketing campaigns can affect consumer perception.

PERFORMANCE:

BMW (27%) and Porsche (21%) again claimed the top spots in the performance category. Experiencing a major improvement, climbing 8 percentage points over last year, this year the fifth spot is claimed by Audi (17%). A growing portfolio with high-performance S model variants and an R8 supercar flagship is clearly communicating that there is another performance-focused German automaker.

Ford (19%) claims third place in performance, with Toyota falling from the top five. Ford's score has remained unchanged as Toyota has tumbled to 15 percentage points. Toyota's high scores in past years suggest that survey respondents were reacting to more than track-based performance characteristics in their strong support for the brand. It has been a long time since the Toyota brand had a true performance car. Chevrolet (19%) again claimed the fourth position, just half a percentage point behind Ford.

ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY/GREEN:

Given the attention the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and other electrified cars are getting, one might think that environmentally friendly cars would be a market force; however the Consumer Reports' green car survey showed that while Americans want better fuel efficiency, they are not willing to pay extra for it.

Consumers are aware that all automakers are striving to improve the fuel economy in their models, and expectations are high for the next new car purchase. This year the survey shows that leader Toyota (46%) and No. 3 Honda (17%) no longer own the "green" space. While both companies provide several hybrid models and offer other fuel-efficient vehicles, the competition is making significant strides.

Taking the second spot from Honda is Ford (18%). With the Fusion hybrid sedan and by spreading its turbocharged "EcoBoost" engines across several model ranges, Ford is delivering more power and efficiency than before. Chevrolet (12%) remained mostly unchanged year-over-year as it makes its fuel-economy push with the Cruze, Equinox, Volt, and upcoming Sonic. The fifth spot was claimed by Scion (9%), keeping Subaru out of the top five by a slight margin.

Surprisingly, Hyundai remained in the seventh spot, barely climbing 1 percentage point over last year. Based on official EPA fuel economy ratings, Hyundai would be a green factor leader. As Hyundai rolls out the Sonata hybrid, redesigned Elantra, and eventually the small Veloster, it may capture more green awareness.


DESIGN/STYLE:

Luxury brands dominated the top spots in the design/style category. Up from fifth place last year, BMW (22%) claimed the top spot, followed by Porsche (20%), Cadillac (20%) and Mercedes-Benz (18%). Interestingly, Lexus (17%) came in at the fifth spot, having dropped 6 percentage points in two years. Cadillac also took a hit, dropping 4 points from last year.

Last year, Toyota had 17%, and this year it came in with just 10%. The drop in perceived styling leadership contributes to that brand's reduced overall score. Just off our leader chart, Ford claimed 17% this year, followed by Chevrolet with 16%.

TECHNOLOGY/INNOVATION:

Toyota (22%) barely stayed at the top, despite losing 10 points from last year, leaving Mercedes-Benz (22%), Ford (21%), Lexus (18%) and BMW (17%) all clustered with similar scores. In the past, Toyota had a commanding advantage in technology, likely fueled by its hybrid powertrains and related marketing.

It would seem that consumers now take the Prius for granted and potentially are not impressed with the Honda CR-Z and Insight. Ford has inched up this year, with numerous recent innovations to its credit beyond hybrid that include EcoBoost powertrains, the SYNC driver interface system and the MyFord Touch touch-screen display.

Lexus and BMW make the list, with each offering powerful, modern powertrains and advanced safety features. Just off this list is Chevrolet at 11%. With the upcoming Volt and new models in the pipeline, this is a brand to watch for next year.

Despite their focus on engineering and marketing efforts heavily on high-tech features, two prestige brands that weren't close were Infiniti (8%) and Acura (5%).

METHODOLOGY:

To learn about consumers' car brand perceptions, the Consumer Reports National Research
Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey on December 2-6, 2010, contacting 2,019 adults, collecting 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 the particular make was mentioned as an exemplar across all seven categories, divided by the total unaided mentions. This approach adjusts for awareness level, ensuring 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 adjusted for awareness.