Best Cars: Ford Posts Big Gains in Consumer Reports Survey

Last Updated Jan 7, 2011 9:08 AM EST

Ford has just added another in a string of recent successes, coming within inches of the top spot in a key brand perception survey. Car shoppers give Ford top marks for safety, quality and value, while perennial No. 1 Toyota has lost ground, according to a survey just released by Consumer Reports. Not surprisingly, the findings mirror sales results for December and all of 2010.

With a strong end-of-year sales picture, Ford's sales for 2010 rose 15.2% while Toyota's were down 0.4%, including a 5.5% drop in December. In its survey of a little more than 2,000 people in car-owning households, Consumer Reports found that positive perceptions of Ford have increased by 35 percentage points over two years while Toyota -- suffering from high-profile recalls -- plummeted 46 percentage points over the same period.

Even with that drop, Toyota retained the top total score with Ford a close second and Honda third. Toyota's total score was 147 while Ford's total was 144. And Toyota -- with its lineup of hybrids including marquee model Prius -- retained a big lead in what CR calls the environmentally friendly/green category. However, that factor registered as less important than in past years. Just 28% of survey respondents said green issues were important -- down a dozen points from 2008. Consumer Reports suggests that strapped consumers are not willing to pay for generally more expensive hybrids and other green cars.

In the survey, 65% of car shoppers said safety was most important, followed by quality (57%) and value (51%). Ford has improved in all those areas, led by models such as the Fusion (right). Rated less important are performance (47%), environmental friendliness (28%), design (25%) and technology or innovation (17%).

Some other interesting tidbits from the CR survey:

Volvo keeps its safety mojo. Despite a new Chinese owner, Volvo -- long a safety leader in fact and in image -- won by a landslide in this category. Of respondents, 70% saw Volvo as strong in safety .

Value perception matters. Three brands that gained in sales last year -- Ford, Chevrolet and Hyundai -- are among the top five in perceived value. With improving reliability and value pricing, Hyundai's Sonata (left) gained 52% in sales in December.

Performance and design go together. Luxury cars BMW and Porsche ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in both the performance and design/style categories. Those who can afford it want to look good and go fast. Surprisingly, Ford ranked third in performance (perhaps with Mustang in mind). Audi -- a brand with rising sales -- made the top five in performance.

Meanwhile, the improving customer perceptions of Ford and Hyundai paid off in the showroom. Ford has regained its No. 2 spot in market share (behind General Motors) and Hyundai for the first time proved itself a serious force in the U.S. market.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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