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Ford staggers Toyota in 'best-loved car' fight

2011_ford_fiesta_hatch.top.jpgImproved car models like the Fiesta are helping Ford to boost its popularity with consumers. By Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Ford is rising fast in a survey of consumers' feelings toward car brands. In fact, Ford is now virtually tied for first place with fast-falling Toyota in the most recent Consumer Reports Car Brand Perception Survey.

Over the last two years, Ford's score in the survey has risen by 35 points while Toyota's score has fallen by 46 points.

In 2010, Toyota was the only major automaker to suffer a decline in sales compared to 2009. Toyota's image has been battered by a spate of recalls and safety scares that started about 18 months ago.

The big drop in consumers' perceptions of Toyota happened during the past year, said Jeff Bartlett, an editor with Consumer Reports. When the same survey was done early last year, news of Toyota recalls hadn't really shifted consumers' views of the automaker yet and it was the best liked brand in the survey -- by a long shot.

This year, views of Toyota began to plummet, he said.

"By Spring, it had really started to show some weakness," Bartlett said.

"2010 was very challenging for Toyota; we expect that some public perception of Toyota's long-standing reputation for quality and reliability might be influenced in the short term, " Toyota spokesman John Hanson said.

Other indicators, including other surveys, warranty claims and owner loyalty, show that Toyota is turning things around, Hanson said.

But Ford's ascent is not simply because it took advantage of Toyota's downfall. Ford made big strides in 2009, particularly in perceptions of environmental friendliness, quality and style, and maintained those gains in 2010 while Toyota slipped.

Consistency is important, Bartlett said, but it helps build on those gains year over year and leads to predictable consumer behavior.

"The gap between the true quality of Ford products and the public perception of that quality is closing," Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said.

The survey asked consumers how they felt about each brand in seven different respects: safety, quality, value, performance, style, technology, and environmentalism. In each area, automakers were scored on a zero to 100 scale then all those scores were added to create an overall score.

Toyota's overall score was 147 and Ford's was 144.

Environmentalism is the one area in which Toyota continues to maintain a strong lead over other brands, according to the survey. Toyota's high score in that category was the only reason Toyota continued to hold its overall top spot, according to Consumer Reports. If not for that, Ford would have had the top overall score.

"Greenness isn't a primary purchase factor," said Bartlett, "but it could be a tie breaker."

In other words, if two cars or trucks are seen as equal in every other respect, car buyers might then go for the one the see as better for the environment.

Unfortunately for Toyota, environmentalism doesn't really matter that much to car buyers, according to the survey, with only 28% considering it important. That's down from 40% just two years ago.

Safety, on the other hand, is considered important by 65% of car buyers, quality by 57% and value by 51%.

Quality was once a hallmark of the Toyota brand, but only 19% of consumers in this survey thought of Toyota first when it came to quality. Honda and Ford both did better. Honda and Ford likewise edged out Toyota when it came to Value.

The telephone survey was conducted in early December among about 1,700 adults in households with at least one car. To top of page

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