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.

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.


Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

How much house can I afford

Home buying 101, evaluating one of your most important financial decisions.

View Course »

Advice for Recent College Grads

Prepare yourself for the "real world".

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

15 Comments

Filter by:
zlatina

And something more, I am European living in USA and I am hearing that Ford are doing very well on the European markets. Toyota is not so popular in Europe.

August 09 2012 at 12:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
zlatina

Soon Ford will top because I am a new Toyota car owner thinking of trading it in for Ford. And probably I am not the only one.
Toyota is so fragile compared to Ford with its paint peeling off/ chipping/ fading away and no warranty support. Ford is experiencing similar problems but at least they admit it and fix it while you cannot expect suck a thing from Toyota! If you do not care how the car looks like only after a few months, then you are O.K. with Toyota. But if you need a nice looking car for at least 4-5 years, then it is Ford.

August 08 2012 at 11:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
harleydavid105

It's simple. BE AMERICAN BUY AMERICAN. That means GM or Ford, not a foreign brand built in the US.

February 01 2012 at 10:08 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to harleydavid105's comment
apcc538

AMEN to that!!!!!!!!!!!!

February 02 2012 at 10:44 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
John Nestel

I agree it makes sense to buy American and stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

February 01 2012 at 8:35 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John Nestel's comment
apcc538

People don't care till it effects them.

February 02 2012 at 10:47 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Ora

just keep buying all this foreign crap and we can kiss this country goodbye even quicker then it is already going to happen , don't get it, the american people crapping on themselves, everyone complained about the colored people when they rioted back in the 60's and this is no different destroy your own country makes no sense if you really want America to flourish

February 01 2012 at 5:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Greg

My Ford is the best car I've ever owned, and I've had a Honda, two Nissans, a Toyota, and a Chevy. I've owned and enjoyed my Ford for over 12 years now. I drove the others no more than 5 years.

There is a 99% chance that my next car will be a Ford, as I haven't entirely ruled out trying a Chevy again. I won't buy a Honda, Nissan, or Toyota. Ford and Chevy makes better cars (value, quality, etc.)

February 01 2012 at 2:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Greg's comment
Greg

I should say 98% chance of a Ford, because I would also consider giving a Subaru Outback a chance. GREAT commercials!

February 01 2012 at 2:43 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Greg's comment
harleydavid105

You would buy a car because of a commercial?

February 01 2012 at 10:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
wfreeberg

I have both a 2011 Ford SD350 and a 2005 Honda Pilot. Prior vehicle was a 2003 Chev 3/4 PU sold last year. We drive all our vehicles 240k or more. They all have been great for us. Only have 97k on the Honda but no majopr issues. Ford is only 3 months old 15k and no issues.

February 01 2012 at 4:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Russell Bennett

I dont trust Toyota for trying to cover up the gas pedal problem.Some of the cases were 4yrs or more old.The safty counsel cleared them and laid the blame on the drivers for pushing the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal.I guess the state Trooper going 120 MPH.on a freeway with some one in the back seat on the phone to 911 trying to find out how to shut the car down was realy pushin the gas pedal. All four people in the car were killed. I saw one report that cliamed that there has been 2000 reports and 82 deaths.

February 01 2012 at 12:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mike

Pa Lease the UAW will NEVER build anything but cra p! As good as Toyota BA HA HA HA !

February 01 2012 at 9:44 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Mike's comment
insanemstng

Yea thats why toyota and honda have the most recalls for 2011 honda number 1 in recalls toyota number 2. Great quality should be called Junkota and recallonda.

February 01 2012 at 3:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
apcc538

People like you are the problem!

February 02 2012 at 10:50 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply