Toyota's Still Tops to Consumers, but Ford's Closing In Fast

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Ford ToyotaToyota (TM) may have lost the U.S. sales lead, but it still leads in one key survey -- and that lead should give fans of the automaker hope as it gears up to retake lost ground.

Toyota retained its crown in the latest edition of Consumer Reports' annual survey of auto-brand perception, a sign that many consumers remain loyal to the company despite its struggles in recent years.

But the survey also showed that homegrown competitor Ford (F) is rapidly closing the gap. And other brands aren't far behind.

Not Your Father's Ford

Every year, Consumer Reports' National Research Center does a survey to understand how consumers perceive car brands in seven different categories: safety, quality, value, performance, environmental friendliness, design and style, and technology and innovation.

Toyota came out on top with a score of 131 in the latest edition, released last week. That's not much of a surprise -- Toyota has led the results for years. But what was somewhat of a surprise is that Ford was close behind with a score of 121, well ahead of Honda (HMC), the third-place finisher.

The dramatic improvements in Ford's products in recent years are old news for industry watchers, but the company has been challenged by consumer perceptions shaped by decades of quality problems from Detroit. Everybody had, or knows someone who had, a Ford (or Chevy or Dodge) from the bad old days that just didn't match up to the standards set by Toyota and Honda. Those memories linger.

Overcoming those perceptions has been a struggle for the Blue Oval brand, despite a whole lineup of fresh products that are on par with -- and in some cases, better than -- the offerings from overseas. Ford's close finish in this latest survey suggests the message might finally be getting through to consumers.

Ford actually led Toyota in safety and value, and tied it (along with Honda) in quality, something that would have been hard to believe just a few years ago. Still, it isn't the only challenger closing in on Toyota.

Other Brands Gathering Strength

Even though third-place Honda has had its own struggles lately, it's no surprise to see that the company is still held in high esteem in consumers' minds. But right on Honda's heels was Chevrolet, just a couple of points behind. That's a sign that the product renaissance at General Motors (GM) -- which is working hard to mirror Ford's rise -- is working.

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Chevy's latest small car, the Cruze, topped the U.S. compact-car sales charts for several months in 2011. Other parts of the company's lineup are seeing steady improvements, though it'll be a couple more years before GM completes the product-line overhaul that was interrupted by its bankruptcy.

The premium European brands -- BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo -- had strong showings as well, as did Hyundai (HYMTF), which got high marks for value. And GM's Cadillac topped the style ratings, while posting an overall score that nestled it right between Volvo and Lexus, a good finish for the resurgent luxury brand.

Newcomer Tesla Motors (TSLA) also made the charts for the first time, scoring high in (no surprise) technology and environmental friendliness. Tesla isn't all that well-known yet, with its first "mass-produced" car still months away, but the magazine noted that its reputation scored well among consumers who were familiar with the brand.

Cars Are Getting Better All Around

As Consumer Reports said in its write-up, "The perceived difference between the top car brands and the challengers is shrinking." As once-dismissed companies from Hyundai to Chrysler continue to bring striking new products to market, and others like Ford go from strength to strength, it's increasingly clear that the gap in quality -- and value -- between the top players and the former laggards is closing fast.

Maybe that's what's most remarkable, after all the turmoil the auto industry has seen in recent years: If you're shopping for a car this year, you may have more good options to choose from than you ever have before.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford.

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