Car brands Subaru and Tesla have risen considerably in the esteem of potential car buyers, according to Consumer Reports latest Car-Brand Perception Survey.
Subaru and Tesla broke into the top 10 just this year. Tesla's fifth and Subaru is sixth.
Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet are the four brands with the most-favorable public perception, the survey shows.
And people disdain some very high-end machinery, such as Land Rover and Rolls-Royce.
Perception isn't necessarily reality. The scores are unrelated to CR's surveys of reliability or the publication's road and track tests, nor are they connected to government and private crash-test scores.
Thus, a well-regarded car brand actually could be selling bad vehicles, and a poorly regarded brand might sell some of the best. Eventually the reality would change perceptions, but it could take a long time, CR says.
The telephone survey of 1,578 random adults in households that owned cars was conducted Dec. 6 through 15 last year.
People were asked to name brands, then were questioned about those brands. They were not read a list of auto brands.
As part of the process, people were asked to name the brands that they thought were stellar in seven categories: quality, safety, performance, value, fuel economy, design/style, technology/innovation.
The overall score is a blend of how each brand did and how important each of the categories is to people.
"The key word here is 'perception,' as influenced by word-of-mouth, marketing, and hands-on experience," CR Deputy Editor Jeff Bartlett says.
In the end, most people make actual buying choices based, not on techno-whiz or glitz and hype, but on "wallet issues," Bartlett says, such as value and fuel economy.
He says it's clear to most shoppers that "you might think a particular super-model is hot, but she's not wife material."
In his view, the best match between perception and reality is Toyota, which is No.1 on the perception survey, and also scores high on other surveys that measure quality, fuel-economy and other attributes people say they value most.
It's also a mass-market brand with many models "so hits the hot buttons on a lot of people," he says. Niche brands that target small audiences might have a tougher time earning public esteem, he says.
A mis-match, Barlett says, is Ford.
It's No. 2 behind Toyota on the overall rankings, and No. 3 in separate rankings of quality perception. But "Ford has been very inconsistent. A lot of their new models have been less than stellar," he says.
The redesigned 2013 Escape SUV, for instance, went on sale June 2012 and was recalled seven times by late November 2013, five of those involving fire risks in models with the 1.6-liter engine.
Perception often is tied to brand loyalty -- people who buy another and another -- and that's important to car companies' profits.
"The important takeaway is, as a consumer, don't make an assumption. Just because your daddy's car was great, that doesn't mean it still is and you should buy one," Bartlett says.
For automakers, the CR perception scores are a report card on marketing.
Electric-car maker Tesla, for example, has been hit by sensational reports about several fires. But CEO Elon Musk quickly has gotten the drivers of the cars on record saying the cars weren't at fault and indeed, saved them from worse harm.
Tesla cars also have good crash-test scores, which Musk has heavily publicized.
In the latest survey, Chevrolet booted Ferrari out of top spot in the performance perception category. That could be because "the new Corvette's been (advertised) everywhere," Bartlett says, while Ferrari advertising and marketing are much less aggressive.
Car brands at the bottom of the list aren't doomed.
Both of Jaguar Land Rover's brands are tail-enders. Land Rover, maker of high-dollar SUVs, is at the bottom. Jaguar is only two spots higher.
But sales of both are growing fast, and more buyers are repeaters than used to be the case.
"We're a niche luxury brand so we're not necessarily going to score highly in some of the categorizes with the general public," says JLR spokesman Stuart Schorr. "A large luxury SUV isn't going to be appropriate, for instance, for people concerned about fuel economy or value."
"A number of high-end brands are at the bottom, so it could be a reflection on public awareness" of those brands, he says.
Of the 39 brands tallied in the 2014 Consumer Reports Car-Brand Perception Survey, here are the brands with the best and worst scores:
39) Land Rover