Ford is catching up on Toyota in the eyes of US customers, according to the 2011 Consumer Reports‘ 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey.

Perennial leader Toyota has declined over the past two years, according to the report, as it has battled recall problems which have had an adverse effect on its reputation for reliability.

While the two car companies are in a statistical dead heat, Ford excels in the factors that consumers say matter most: safety, quality and value, said the report.

Over a two-year period, Ford climbed 35 percentage points as Toyota has plummeted by 46 points, with total scores of 144 and 147, respectively.  A year ago, Toyota retained a substantial lead over Ford and Honda, the second and third makes in terms of the strongest or most favourable car brand.

In 2010, however, Toyota finished only slightly ahead of Ford, which widened its advantage over Honda. Honda has continued to lose ground, sliding 28 points since 2008.

The scores in the survey reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, design/style, technology/innovation, and environmentally friendly/green. Measuring across those categories provides the total brand perception and does not directly represent the actual qualities of any brand’s vehicles.

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Ford built on the momentum seen in last year’s study thanks to an improved model line-up and better performance, reliability and styling. At the same time, the massive recalls announced by Toyota contributed to the tarnishing of its public image as measured in the poll.

One area where Toyota maintained a significant lead is in a category that, according to Consumer Reports, continues to become less important to consumers: environmentally friendly/green. Toyota leads the category by a large margin, with a score of 46, compared to second-place Ford at 18. Without that big Toyota victory in the green category, Ford would have clearly claimed the top overall score.

The survey found that the environmentally friendly/green factor continues to drop with only 28% of consumers finding it to be an important factor, down by 4% since last year and by 12% since 2008. This drop is likely a sign of the leaner economic times and unwillingness to spend more for green technologies.

The 10 most recognisable brands based on the perception of car owners are: Toyota (147), Ford (144), Honda (121), Chevrolet (102), BMW (93), Mercedes-Benz (90), Volvo (84), Lexus (69), Cadillac (66), and Subaru (50). Honda and Chevrolet retained their third and fourth place finishes, while BMW leapt over Volvo and Mercedes-Benz to capture fifth place.

The four brands with a double-digit drop in brand perception are Toyota (-49 points), Subaru (-31 points), Chevrolet (-22 points) and Lexus (-11 points).  After a 23-point jump last year, Subaru went in reverse to dip below its 2008 number.