Yonkers, New York – The differences between the top car brands and their challengers is shrinking in consumer perception, according to a new U.S. study by Consumer Reports.

Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet, which have been the perennial leaders in the magazine’s annual Car Brand Perception Survey, maintained their top positions but have seen the point gap decrease, most with double-digit drops in their total scores.

“Dramatic events in the automotive industry seem to be affecting how consumers view auto brands,” said Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor for autos online. “Erratic gasoline prices and a struggling economy have pushed consumers to prize low operating costs and good reliability.”

The survey reflects how consumers perceive each brand by safety, quality, value, performance, environmental friendliness, design and style, and technology and innovation. While the scores reflect a brand’s image in consumers’ minds, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any of the brand’s vehicles, or results from Consumer Reports testing.

Toyota continued to dominate overall in brand perception, although it slipped by 17 points compared with last year’s survey results. Ford, Honda and BMW saw their scores drop by more than 20 points, but Cadillac and Chevrolet had only single-digit decreases.

Safety is the most important factor in car buying among respondents, at 65 per cent. The leading brands in overall perception typically excel in multiple categories, but Volvo has maintained a top-ten spot for years by virtue of its safety reputation alone. This year, Volvo took a 21 per cent point drop in safety perception, from 70 per cent last year to 49 per cent this year. The magazine said that if this continues, the trend could drop Volvo out of the top overall ten in future years and into the second tier. Other brands also dropped points in safety, including Subaru, which dropped from 17 to 10 per cent and fell from the list of the top five brands in the safety factor. Despite its large-scale recalls in recent years, Toyota has remained consistent at 13 per cent and was elevated to third place because of decreases in other brands.

In the quality factor, Toyota, Honda and Ford now share a three-way tie for the top spot. Honda lost six percentage points, while Toyota held at 19 percentage points. “Brand perception can be influenced by many things, from professional road tests to marketing,” Bartlett said. “Word-of-mouth from friends and neighbours can be a slower moving though influential contributor as ownership transitions from the initial honeymoon phase to the seven-year itch.”

As in past years, BMW was rated highest for performance, but its score dropped from 27 per cent last year to 19 per cent this year. Porsche lost its second-place position this year. Ford’s score remained consistent, which the magazine said could be due to its Mustang and expanding range of well-received turbocharged engines, while Chevrolet saw a minor drop in a year where much of its marketing focus was shifted to fuel efficiency.

Toyota led the environmentally friendly/green category despite a drop of 8 percentage points. Smart debuted in the top five despite having no new products or a sizable advertising budget. Honda claimed the third place again, while Ford slipped slightly. Although they released the electric Volt and Leaf this year, Chevrolet and Nissan did not significantly spring ahead, with Chevrolet remaining constant at 12 percentage points and Nissan inching up about 2 percentage points to a total of 8 per cent.

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