Toyota Motor Corp.’s flagship brand widened its lead as the highest-rated among brands in an annual consumer perception survey by Consumer Reports, while Tesla Motors and Subaru cracked the top 10.
The Toyota brand topped Ford Motor Co.’s nameplate brand by 25 points — five points higher than last year’s ranking — followed by the Honda brand in third place. Then came General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet brand, Tesla, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Cadillac, and BMW.
Falling out of the top 10 were Dodge and Hyundai.
The nonprofit magazine, which has 8 million subscribers and is widely influential among car buyers, said Toyota’s higher score could mean that safety concerns have faded since the Japanese automaker’s massive recalls of millions of vehicles in 2009 and 2010 for sudden unintended acceleration.
The magazine’s perception scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven buying areas, ranked in the order consumers say are important: Quality, safety, performance, value, fuel economy, design/style and technology/innovation.
“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, Consumer Reports deputy automotive editor.
Perception is critical — and highly perceived brands have higher residual values. Several years ago, GM conducted a focus group with consumers who estimated that the value of a GM outfitted with Toyota badging was worth several thousand dollars more than the GM car with its own badging.
Chevrolet jumped to the top of the list for performance — up from third in 2012 — as Ferrari, which led all brands last year on performance, fell to seventh. BMW was second.
Volvo remained No. 1 in the safety rating, followed by Subaru, while Toyota topped the ratings for value and fuel economy. Honda was first in the quality rankings. Tesla topped the list of technology/innovation, knocking Toyota out of the top spot. BMW took first place from Audi on design/style.
The biggest winner was Tesla, which jumped from 47 points last year to fifth position with 88 points.
Tesla’s Model S has gotten very strong reviews and sales have been above forecasts, but it is also facing an investigation by federal safety officials into battery fires sparked by debris striking the undercarriage.
David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, said it isn’t always clear what drives perceptions. “Recalls are a measure of quality and the question is how did they defeat perceptions from the recalls,” he said.
Perceptions “lag reality” and brands can take years and lots of advertising to turn around their image — even if their vehicles have dramatically improved.
The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey of 1,578 adults from Dec. 6-15, 2013, and collected survey data from 1,764 adults in households that had at least one car.