With Tesla a relatively unknown among normals until very recently hitting the top 5 this year is an achievement.

several other brands—including Tesla—are moving up the rankings.

These scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven categories: quality, safety, performance, value, fuel economy, design/style, and technology/innovation. Combining those factors gives us the total brand-perception score. While the scores reflect a brand’s image, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand’s vehicles.

The key word here is “perception,” as influenced by word-of-mouth, marketing, and hands-on experience. Often, perception can be a trailing indicator, reflecting years of good or bad performance in a category, and it can also be swayed by headlines, such as Subaru and Tesla garnering awards, or brands being caught in widespread recalls, such as Honda, Jeep, and Toyota.

For 2014, Toyota has a 25-point advantage over second-place Ford, reflecting a five-point gain over the previous year for Toyota and a three-point improvement for Ford. It could be interpreted that the safety concerns that saw the Toyota score stumble a few years ago have faded, returning the brand to its position as the perceived industry leader.

Honda lost 16 points this year, while Chevrolet seemed to find them, increasing its score by 13 points.

The brand to watch is Tesla Motors, which jumped from 47 points last year, to fifth position and 88 points this year. Tesla had a strong, very public year, with soaring stock prices, magazine awards, sterling crash-test performance, and even claiming the spot as the top-rated car by Consumer Reports. Innovation, performance, and sleek styling is clearly gaining attention and making a positive impression. By accumulating points in several categories, Tesla was able to raise its overall score. This highlights the value of being good at multiple things, rather than relying on a single facet.

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