United States-market vehicles that scored the highest on Strategic Vision's 2003 Total Value Index (TVI) had an incidence of incentives well below the industry average, the San-Diego-based research firm said in a statement on Monday.

The index measures whether or not buyers believe they got their money's worth, by correlating all economic issues against the quality of the ownership experience.

Japanese manufacturers, led by Toyota and Honda, were at the top of 11 segments (one a tie). European marques, led by Audi, were at the top of five categories (one a tie). US domestic brands captured three first place spots and Hyundai won two.

Two European products, the Audi TT Roadster (817) Mini Cooper (814) were the highest scoring vehicles. The rest of the top 10 came from European and Japanese manufacturers. Each was sold with incentives far below the industry average of 61%.

"The domestics keep pace on immediate economic issues like price and warranty," said Strategic Vision vice president Daniel Gorrell, "but they fall behind import manufacturers on expectations of reliability, durability and resale value. This tends to undermine buyers' sense of trust in the domestics and forces them to offer more incentives to sell their vehicles."

"Consumers don't measure value just in dollars and cents," said Strategic Vision president Darrel Edwards,. "It's what you get for your money. Thus you can't calculate value without the quality, including the emotional response, buyers perceive in the complete ownership experience."

Lexus (784) remained the top-scoring brand, and Suzuki was the most improved brand. Nissan Motor showed the most improvement of the full-line corporations, moving it ahead of Toyota in total value.

"Those companies that put their money into product development that delivered overall quality fared better than those that put their resources into incentives," says Gorrell. "The domestics are at a disadvantage until they get hot new products into dealer showrooms."

Buyers participating in the study purchased their new vehicles between October 2002 and March 2003 and had at least 90 days of ownership experience before they were queried.