Yonkers, N.Y. - Consumers continue to distinguish Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet as the leading brands overall, but several others, including Tesla and Subaru, are moving up the rankings, according to Consumer Reports' annual Car-Brand Perception Survey.
Toyota has a 25-point advantage over second-place Ford, reflecting a five-point gain over the year prior for Toyota and a three-point improvement for Ford. It could be interpreted that the safety concerns that saw the Toyota score stumble a few years ago have faded, returning the brand to its position as the perceived industry leader.
The scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven important buying factors, ranked in order of the importance to consumers: quality, safety, performance, value, fuel economy, design/style and technology/innovation. Combining those factors gives the total brand-perception score. While the scores reflect a brand's image, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand's vehicles.
"The key word is 'perception'. Consumers are influenced by word of mouth, marketing and hands-on experience. Often, perception can be a trailing indicator, reflecting years of good or bad performance in a category, and it can also be influenced by headlines in the media," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy automotive editor, Consumer Reports.
The survey shows the brand to watch is Telsa Motors, which jumped from 47 points last year, to fifth position with 88 points. Tesla had a strong, very public year, with soaring stock prices, magazine awards and exceptional crash-test performance. Innovation, performance and sleek styling is clearly gaining attention and making a positive impression. By gaining points in several categories, Tesla was able to raise its overall score. This highlights the value of being good at multiple things, rather than rely on a single facet.
Consumer perception of Subaru's safety is a key factor in that brand's ascension into the top 10. This modest-scale automaker made big news over the past year with its "good" crash-test performance, among other accomplishments. All its models, except for the aged Tribeca, have earned coveted Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The survey results suggest consumers are paying attention.
That the remainder of the Top 10 all score 73 or higher is notable; last year there was a wider spread. Many brands impress consumers, creating a challenge for brands to distinguish themselves in the fast-moving marketplace. Likewise, consumers need to determine where to spend their money.Quality:
The top factor for car buyers remains quality, scoring 90 points both this year and last. What has changed is the number of brands that are distinguished by this attribute. In 2013, Consumer Reports had four brands show a clear advantage; this year, there are six that stand out from the herd, including Cadillac in sixth place. Toyota has an advantage here, with the other brands clustered close behind. Seeing the brands that are considered exemplar for this virtue underscores how "quality" can be broadly interpreted, ranging from tactile first impressions to long-term durability.Safety:
Volvo has long hung its hat on safety, and this focus continues to pay off. In the minds of consumers, there is a single, clear choice. The Swedish brand increased its lead this year, potentially aided by public awareness of advanced safety features in general, and Volvo's continued efforts to remain on the forefront of safety technology. It will be a challenge for automakers to close the gap with Volvo, but Subaru demonstrates that it is possible with consistent performance across a model range.Performance:
As Consumer Reports has seen in recent years, standout brands tend to offer a balance of sporty and fuel-efficient models. Chevrolet exemplifies this concept, as it takes the lead for 2014 propelled by the Corvette Stingray, Camaro and SS, with the Cruze diesel and Volt likely proving a factor, as well. BMW remains in second place, bolstered by turbocharged engines that strive to improve both acceleration and fuel efficiency, plus its electrified i3 and i8.Value:
Consumers remain value conscious, looking to get the most for their money. With cars, that means looking beyond the purchase price to what the car delivers for that money. Here, Consumer Reports survey showed consistent year-over-year rankings, with the same five automakers topping the chart: Toyota, Honda, Ford, Kia and Chevrolet.
The twist this year is the corporate siblings Hyundai and Kia have traded places, with about an eight point difference each year separating the two. Clearly, both have the potential to rightfully shine in this area, but their volatile movements suggest owners keep seeing them in different lights, perhaps influenced by the visibility of Hyundai's special recession-proof financing guarantees and introduction of new, compelling products.Fuel economy:
Toyota owns fuel economy in the minds of consumers, aided by its Prius hybrid and its continued benchmark performance, with 44 mpg overall. But this is a trait that all automakers are chasing. Smart jumped up 10 points this year, despite not offering a new product. Honda continues to hover near the top, with its continued focus on efficiency. Tesla and Volkswagen crashed the party this year, with increased recognition for their accomplishments. The electric Tesla Model S garnered much attention this year for its combination of gas-free luxury and performance, with ample range that enables it to be a truly traditional car replacement. Volkswagen continues to carve a notable niche with its efficient diesel powertrains, now joined by a hybrid in the Jetta line.Design/style:
Notably a less important factor, design/style still plays a vital role in driving car purchases. Truly a subjective measure, design continues to be led by the prestige brands BMW, Cadillac, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. But, their lead is slight and vulnerable to the fickle tides of public tastes. Consumer Reports' survey has seen mainstream brands be increasingly daring in recent years, and several have invested in upscale exterior dressing, such as extensive chrome and LED lights, to grab attention. The top 10 here is rounded out with Ford, Lexus, Ferrari, Tesla and Dodge.Technology/innovation:
The least important car-buyer factor rated by consumers in CR's survey, technology/innovation, is still a significant consideration for at least 68 percent of car shoppers. Automakers are racing to offer the latest, greatest infotainment and advanced safety features. And consequently, brochures and advertising are overflowing with similar-sounding systems from across the industry, making it difficult for brands to distinguish themselves. But this year, Tesla has done so, giving the fresh brand a commanding lead in this year's rankings. The other top brands all have focused on consumer-facing technology, though with mixed results. The much-ballyhooed infotainment systems from these brands often leave something to be desired.