U.S. Car Buyers Seeing Less Difference Between Car Brands

Not so long ago, saying the name of any of the top car brands — Toyota, Chevy, Ford, Honda, etc — conjured up very distinct associated images and preconceptions, especially when compared to the smaller and newer brands on the market. But it looks like that line between champs and challengers is blurring as consumers re-think what they prize in an automobile.

Our downshifting, drifting gear-head cohorts at Consumer Reports have just released the results of their 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey, which demonstrates a closing of the gap between traditional top auto brands and perennial also-rans.

“Dramatic events in the automotive industry seem to be affecting how consumers view auto brands,” explains CR’s Jeff Bartlett. “Erratic gasoline prices and a struggling economy have pushed consumers to prize low operating costs and good reliability,”

While Toyota maintained its position on the top of the brand perception pile, it dropped a total of 17 points from the 2011 survey. This is in line with drops of more than 20 points from other top brands like Ford, Honda, and BMW.

Meanwhile, GM’s two biggest brands, Cadillac and Chevrolet, managed to eke out single-digit score improvements.

The Car-Brand Perception Survey combines results for seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, environmentally friendly/green, design/style, and technology/innovation to come up with the total brand-perception score.

And while a whopping 37 points separates top-scoring brand from #3 Honda, the middle of the list shows a cluster of brands with similar scores, with fewer than 30 points separating #6 Honda and #15 Nissan.

Bringing up the rear of the pack are mostly European brands like Saab, with a meager 5 points, and Fiat, Mini, and Mitsubishi all tying for next-to-lowest with only 7 points.

The entire report can be read over at ConsumerReports.org.

It should be While the scores reflect a brand’s image in consumers’ minds, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand’s vehicles, or results from Consumer Reports testing.

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  1. mszabo says:

    Its annoying that it still appears formated for a printed page. This is the internet pixels are free and scroll bars work. Limiting the tables to the top 5 is something you’d do for a printed page. I wouldn’t call it a ‘complete’ report without the full tables from top to bottom.

  2. Marlin says:

    ‚Äúthey do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand’s vehicles, or results from Consumer Reports testing.‚Äù

    That’s good to know, since CR testing is so scientific and open with its testing and survey methods.

    /s

    • Round-Eye §ñ‰∫∫„ÅØ„Ç≥„É≥„Çπ„Éû„É™„ÉÉ„Çπ„Éà„ÅåÂ•Ω„Åç„Åß„Åô„ÄÇ says:

      But, again, this is a “What do the idiots who don’t know about cars think about those cars’ reliability/gas mileage/blah blah blah” survey. This is as scientific and noteworthy as a elementary schoolers science project on, I dunno, “What Jellybeans Do 1st Graders Like the Most”.

      Articles like these in CR just devalue all the good studies they do.

  3. clippy2.0 says:

    Agree, 100% That’s why I love going after unique looking cars, like the Scion xd or xb, the nissan Juke, or even a jeep wrangler. Just something to get away from that camry look! a co-worker of mine was recently showing me his SUV shopping list, and I couldn’t help but notice how they all look like minivans! It’s crazy

    • clippy2.0 says:

      That being said, I still have my brand views, but I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. I think of Fords and GM’s and see trucks, I think of BMW’s and Mercedes and think of performance sports cars, and I think of Kia’s and see plastic junk and people lunching on dogs

      • tbax929 says:

        Some of the new Kias look really nice. I don’t have one, but the ones I see on the road look nice and unique.

        I’m a Nissan/Infinity fan because I think their cars look different from a lot of what’s on the road. Although I don’t think all of their cars are attractive (not a fan of the Cube but love the Juke) I do think they’re stylish. I feel the same way about Mazdas. I’ve always found Hondas and Toyotas to be kinda boring. I’m sure they’re great cars, but I’ve never wanted to buy one. Before I got into Nissans I always had Mitsubishis. The only reason I stopped buying them was because we no longer have a Mitsu dealership in my city.

        • clippy2.0 says:

          Yeah, a couple of years ago I felt like Kia’s and Hyundai’s were all trying to steal design elements from the larger brands like BMW and Toyota, but now I feel it has reversed, and people are pulling design elements from Kia. I even almost looked at a Sportage before I got my wrangler, just because it had good reviews and got great mileage, and didn’t look that bad

      • pop top says:

        “I think of Kia’s and see plastic junk and people lunching on dogs”

        Good to know that you’re an incredible racist.

        • tbax929 says:

          Oh, that’s what that comment meant?!

          I was completely confused, but now that you say that, I get it.

        • clippy2.0 says:

          as long as I’m not a mediocre racist

        • Round-Eye §ñ‰∫∫„ÅØ„Ç≥„É≥„Çπ„Éû„É™„ÉÉ„Çπ„Éà„ÅåÂ•Ω„Åç„Åß„Åô„ÄÇ says:

          Actually, that’s pretty spot on. There is a large amount of canine consumption in Korea. I’ve had it. It’s not great.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      I swore that was snark, especially when you mentioned the Juke(box).

      So you want unique at the sacrifice of reliability, low gas mileage, and value?

      • clippy2.0 says:

        Not every car has to be an econobox. While I believe most people want full economy, I also feel there is always going to be a market for unique buyer. I mean, why have multiple brands if everyone is going to create the exact same 40 mpg hybrid? The box has its place, but there are obviously still people out there who want to have an opinion about their car

      • trailerpark1976 says:

        The Juke gets pretty good mpg. The engine Nissan uses in the Juke is solid as well. Granted the looks of it might not be everyones favorite.

    • TheMansfieldMauler says:

      “SUV” is now a catchall for any vehicle that’s built on a car platform with a taller body and some kind of back door. They’re all the same – underpowered, nonaerodynamic mommyboxes to give the kiddies plenty of room to watch their vvvvideoooos so they’ll stay quiet. They’re barely “utility” and certainly not “sport”.

      • JonBoy470 says:

        ANd yet, those “SUV’s” have less interior room, worse gas mileage and even cost more than true minivans!

      • Willow16 says:

        We have owned Ford Explorers since 1992 and our 2003 will be our last (unless we buy a used 2010). We use it as a truck to haul and tow but the newest version is no longer a truck. It is smaller and more car-like, not to mention significantly more expensive. Even a Ford dealer was bemoaning the huge increase in price when we were shopping for a Fiesta for our teenager.

  4. DJSeanMac says:

    “Let’s save design costs by using the front end of this car and the back end of this other car. We’ll slap a different name on the trunk and no one will notice. Right?”

    • scoutermac says:

      Sounds about right. I bought my Toyota Camry Hybrid for gas mileage and it’s size. The SUVs I like just don’t get very good gas mileage.

  5. Warren - aka The Piddler on the Roof says:

    I’m STILL waiting for someone to make one of these:

    http://onscreencars.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/TheHomer.jpg

  6. balthisar says:

    I’m very proud to see where Ford is on that list! Especially compared to its American competitors, and given the foreign competition. The only Ford I’ve regretting purchasing was from a time long, long ago, and back then everyone except Honda and Toyota were worse. I don’t regret my previous Honda purchases — they were great cars — but there’s no reason not to consider a Ford now (even if you decide to buy something else).

    • scoosdad says:

      I was really disappointed to see a video on the Consumer Reports site yesterday, previewing the redesigned 2013 Ford Escape. Until a really nice used car suddenly dropped in my lap last fall and I bought it, I had been considering a new Escape to replace my twelve year old Explorer.

      To me, the 2013 Escape now looks just like a clone of all the other smaller curved body SUVs like the Honda CR-V or the Toyota RAV4, and I’m not impressed.

      • You Can Call Me Al(isa) says:

        Ew. I just looked at it and you’re right.
        I’ve been saying for a long time that the Chevy Aveo = Honda Fit = Toyota Matrix = Ford Fiesta

      • MrEvil says:

        Functionally the 2013 Escape isn’t very different from the current one except in powertrain options. It’s still a FWD Unitized SUV with an I4 for the standard engine.

    • themicah says:

      I think it’s funny how Ford is #2 but Mercury is 6th from the bottom (and the lowest ranked American brand), when their cars are almost identical.

      • shepd says:

        Well, that’s easy to explain. Ford makes the Crown Vic, a great reliable car, whereas Mercury makes the Grand Marquis, a gaudy and unreliable piece of junk not even fit to be a police cruiser.

        The Lincoln Town Car doesn’t get on the list at all, since it’s worse than the Crown Vic by 6 inches, but better than the Grand Marquis by 6 inches.

        ///so happy I bought Crown Vic, I was worried there for a minute!

        • do-it-myself says:

          I hope you’re not being serious. The only difference between the Crown Vic and Grand Marquis is about 10sqft. of chrome painted plastic. The Town Car uses a slightly extended body. All 3 are of the now sadly discontinued Panther platform.

  7. MutantMonkey says:

    Any time I sit in the driver seat of anything that isn’t a Honda, it just doesn’t feel quite right.

    • Phil Keeps It Real [Consumerist] says:

      All Honda’s don’t feel da same under me buttom….they do to you ?

      • MutantMonkey says:

        That depends on the seat I guess. It’s more about the controls and quality. Honda’s are very predictable.

    • greggorthechamp says:

      I feel the same about my Audi A4 with sports package. The seats are just so supportive, and the adjustable lateral support is great for someone with long legs like myself.

  8. ZachPA says:

    “Somewhat surprising, however, is that after a year of seemingly endless headlines espousing the electrifying virtues of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, those brands didn’t spring ahead in this factor.”

    Is it really surprising considering that both vehicles are priced between $35k and $40k for vehicles that are, at best, in the entry-level class in terms of fit-and-finish, power, handling and style? The manufacturers like to harp on the $7500 tax break you get by purchasing one, but they nearly always fail to mention that you have to wait until next year’s tax refund to capitalize, which means you’ll be shouldering that $7500 burden (plus whatever interest) in the meantime.

    And while the Chevy Volt can drive using its gasoline engine when out of batteries, if you own a Nissan Leaf, you’re pretty much limited to local driving, or routes that feature charging stations. If you consider that cars in its class typically cost $15k and get 40mpg, the payback time for the $20k all-electric premium approaches 400k miles.

    • skakh says:

      Sadly the Nissan Leaf is nothing more than a $35K scooter to use to visit the grocery store. So much promise and so little value. Only a fool would buy one. Someday electric might be valuable but not today. Once someone figures out how to extend it to a useable range and give it enough power to handle a good size hill, maybe.

  9. NumberSix says:

    I have a Mitsubishi and its been a great car! My in-laws have one as well that they drive a ton. Both cars have been rock solid. I wonder why Mitsubishi rates so low?

    • tbax929 says:

      I’m a former Mitsu owner, and the problem I had is the lack of dealerships. There was one in my city (of about a million people), but it closed down. I won’t buy a car if the manufacturer doesn’t have a dealership in my city.

      We have the same problem with Subaru. I really wanted to consider one the last time I was car shopping, but there is only one Subaru dealership in my city.

  10. Bob Lu says:

    #3 Honda and #6 Honda?

    Am I missing something?

    (Sorry didn’t read the CR article.)

  11. dolemite says:

    So THAT’s why so many people keep buying Cobalts and Aveos and their ilk..they simply don’t know any better.

  12. Poisson Process says:

    Saying something is lame isn’t much better than saying something is gay. Lame means disabled. So, you’re equating something you don’t like with a person who has a disability.

  13. Potted-Plant says:

    We’ve just started watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. I’ve caught myself thinking, “Wow, that Aztec doesn’t look so bad anymore when it’s compared to a lot of new designs”.

    Seriously, most new cars look like cheap plastic jellybeans. I’m taking very good care of my Eurovan. I hate the way most new cars look and am not looking forward to replacing it.

  14. Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

    It’s because every car looks like every other car. Take the Hyundai Tucson, that looks exactly like the Kia Sportage, that looks exactly like the Lexus SUV.

    I miss when cars had personality.

    • markvii says:

      Amen. Today’s cars generally lack pizazz. My daily driver is a Saturn LS, which is a competent midsize sedan, but stand out against all the other competent midsizes out there.

      I miss the days when different cars looked different. That’s why I’m such a classic car nut, and miss my first car.

      • Snowblind says:

        It is a case of form following function.

        Cars must meet CAFE requirements, and the number of unique slipstream jellybean designs is limited.

      • Potted-Plant says:

        I had a grey ’99 SL2. I freaking loved that car. Had to get the van when we started having kids, but I see others like it on the road and I smile.

  15. neilb says:

    Want REAL users’ info? Go here before you buy:
    truedelta.com
    I used to be in the auto numbers business. Anecdotal stuff like truedelta offers beats JDPA and Consumer Reports’ iffy methodologies. Really, auto “scoring” of any sort is VERY difficult.
    I like TrueDelta because one can read about what the issues from the last year’s model was and decide if those are ok problems to live with. That, and the site is awesome in general when shopping or maintaining.
    Sorry if I sound like a shill (I’m not), but I really like that site and I think it offers unique value!
    It is a win for consumers.

  16. skakh says:

    The survey is based on perception. The survey is useless. Perception often gets people into trouble. The survey lists BMW and MB fairly high. Any quick investigation on George Bush’s internets will reveal BMW and MD reliability is questionable, the vehicles are nice though. On the other side, Hyundai appears at the bottom of the list. Reality indicates Hyuandai’s reliablity has improved. The survey did get it right with VW and Audi.

    Consumer Reports was, at one time, a valuable source of information. No longer!

  17. Samuel H. Dighan says:

    It is what is inside that matters (just like Mom told me). Quality, reliability and features matter more; substance over style. I honestly cannot distinguish between many vehicles until I am close enough to see the mfg. badges. Even then, most are chromed ovals. The only instantly recognizable cars are Dodge (fugly).