Is That a Ford? Fiat? U.S. Consumers See Fewer Differences Between Car Brands

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I’ve never been a car guy. I can’t tell you the difference between Honda and Hyundai. I don’t see a classic speedster (that’s the term, right?) on the road and say, “There goes the ’69 Camaro SS 396 4-Speed. Boy, listen to that thing purr.” So it’s reassuring to see that more Americans are finally catching up with me.

According to the 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey released by Consumer Reports, the perceived differences between the dominant auto companies and their smaller competitors is shrinking.

The annual survey is a look into how car buyers perceive brands in seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, environmental friendliness, design and style, and technology and innovation. After consumers rate brands in the various categories, CR combines the numbers into one score, giving a single rating indicating how drivers perceive each brand as a whole. The survey’s authors are careful to note that the score offers an overall perception of the brand, but “does not directly represent the actual qualities of any brand’s vehicles.”

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The 2012 survey shows that Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet are still leading the pack in terms of brand perception, but all of these automakers scored lower than they did last year. Many saw double-digit drops in their ratings.

While Toyota is still king, it dropped 17 points in the survey compared with last year, while Ford, Honda and BMW all dropped more than 20 points.

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None of this is particularly surprising. Over the last few years, the car industry has witnessed some of the most dramatic changes in its history. GM and Chrysler went bankrupt, only to then be brought back to life with the help of the federal government. A Chinese automaker bought Volvo. Toyota, once the unquestioned champion in terms of reliability, is still feeling the effects of recalls and Japan’s tsunami.

What with a struggling economy and rising gas prices, car buyers have also put more emphasis on lower costs and more fuel efficiency and reliability. All of this seems to be altering how consumers view auto brands.

The upheaval in the industry, as well as the economy, seems to be reflected by an upheaval in consumers’ perceptions. If there’s one clear-cut trend, it’s been a flattening of the automotive industry in terms of perception. Consumers no longer see as much difference among the various brands. As for folks like me, it is good to feel more like the average American car buyer these days.