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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