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Toyota, Ford, Honda, Chevy Make Big Impression On U.S. Drivers, But Tesla, Subaru Are Closing In

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If you're a fan of European auto brands, we have some bad news: by and large, your car companies are being left in the dust by their American and Asian competitors. At least that's what Consumer Reports claims in its latest Car-Brand Perception Survey. 

To create the survey, the magazine polled nearly 1,600 adults by telephone and an additional 1,764 U.S. households. Respondents were asked to identify the car brands that they considered top-scorers in seven different categories: Quality, Safety, Performance, Value, Fuel Economy, Design/Style, and Technology/Innovation. (To make things fair, pollsters had respondents name auto brands themselves rather than pick from a set list.) 

Not only did the magazine identify the highest-ranked brands in each category, it also named overall winners. It did so by weighing responses in each category slightly differently, based on the importance that each of the seven factors has on the shopping process. For example, 90 percent of respondents identified Quality as a major criteria when shopping for a new car, which is why Quality scores weighed slightly more in the poll's total calculation.

OVERALL WINNERS

Toyota was the Car-Brand Perception Survey's overall winner, clocking in five points above last year and 25 points above second-place finisher, Ford -- which was itself up three points. The magazine suggests that the public's concerns over Toyota's headline-grabbing recalls in 2010 have finally faded, resulting in a vastly improved public image. As Consumer Reports' Jeff Bartlett points out, "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."

Honda and Chevrolet took the number three and four spots, respectively, but the real surprise came at rung #5, where we find Tesla Motors. Clearly, the start-up's stellar crash-test rating and stock prices have turned consumers' heads (though Tesla scored best in the categories of Technology/Innovation, Performance, and Design/Style, not Safety). The magazine also gives a nod to Subaru, which jumped in this year's ratings, thanks largely to its high Safety scores from respondents.

As far as individual category-winners are concerned, here are some of the survey's highlights:

Quality: Toyota wins here, but its followed closely by five others, including Cadillac at #6.

Safety: Good news, Euro fans: Volvo is still tops in Safety, though it's getting some stiff competition from Subaru. (It's also going to have to deal with some questions about its new owners, but we've already covered that topic.)

Performance: Thanks to the Camaro, Corvette, Cruze, and perhaps the Volt, Chevrolet dominates this area, with BMW coming in at #2. 

Value: Asian and American brands earn top spots here, with Toyota at the head of the class. Honda, Ford, Kia, and Chevrolet round out the top five. Interestingly, Hyundai fell out of the group, replaced by its sibling, Kia.

Fuel Economy: No surprises here: Toyota wins this one handily, thanks to the legendary Prius. Somehow Smart scored high in this category, despite some lackluster performance in the marketplace. Honda, Tesla, and Volkswagen also earned high marks from respondents. 

Design/Style: This is clearly where Euro models score best. The top four brands in this category are BMW, Cadillac, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz -- although it's important to point out that Ford, Lexus, Ferrari, Tesla, and Dodge are closing in.

Technology/Innovation: Though we focus a lot of attention on new-car tech, it's the least important factor for auto shoppers. Still, a win's a win, and in this field, Tesla won big. 

Consumer Reports will release complete rankings for its Car-Brand Perception Survey later today at ConsumerReports.org

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