Consumer Reports’ 2008 Car Brand Perception Survey shows the usual suspects, Toyota and Honda, atop the heap, but finds Honda’s upscale marque in the basement – which shocks brand officials.

“In a nutshell we would disagree with the assessment that Acura would fall that low in any survey,” an Acura company spokesman tells Ward’s. “Our research shows Acura is ranking high in technology aspects and brand awareness and those types of things.”

Rankings are based on a blind telephone survey conducted last month to judge how consumers perceive industry brands on performance, safety, quality, value, performance, environmental friendliness, design and technical innovation.

Data collected from 1,720 U.S. adults found Toyota and Honda brands are perceived as the best by a wide margin. Ford, Chevrolet and GMC were third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

On an aggregate basis, Toyota and Honda earned scores of 189 and 146. Acura received eight points, finishing below Audi (14 points), Mitsubishi (21 points) and Mercury (22 points).

“We didn’t get a lot of feedback on Acura,” says Ed Farrell, associate director for the magazine’s survey team. “All these questions were unaided. The first lead-off question is, ‘When you think of cars available for sale in America, what cars do you think of?’”

Farrell says respondents then were asked questions relating to attributes, such as “When you think of performance, what car best typifies to you performance?”

In many categories, Acura “didn’t come up as a single mention,” Farrell tells Ward’s.

While Acura models have tested well in the magazine’s evaluations, there is “something about the brand that isn’t resonating as strong as other premium brands,” says Jeff Bartlett, deputy autos editor for Consumer Reports.

The Acura spokesman says a dearth of new model launches last year could have been a factor in the poor survey result. But he also believes the small sample size and the survey’s methodology are “not indicative of the real world and especially not indicative of luxury buyers.”

The brand’s own commissioned surveys, conducted quarterly, suggest awareness of the brand is much higher, he adds.

“That may be one of those snapshots that’s blurry when it comes to Acura’s real image,” he says of the Consumer Reports’ survey.

Industry analysts and reviewers have slammed Acura for having a muddy brand image vs. its Japanese luxury competitors, Lexus and Infiniti. Chief among the complaints is that none of its vehicles feature V-8 engines.

Perception has been a problem for many auto makers and their brands, especially among Detroit auto makers. While many have improved processes to boost quality and reduce fleet sales to hike resale value, a negative view remains.

“We always seem to make the assumption that consumers are perfectly logical and have full information and understand exactly what’s going on,” says Dave Bussiere, assistant marketing professor and MBA program director at the University of Windsor’s Odette School of Business in Windsor, ON, Canada.

“They’re fully willing to answer any question based on gut reaction.”

Bussiere says while consumers have more information than ever before when it comes to making a new-car purchase, largely thanks to the Internet, they can be overwhelmed by data and turn to “heuristics” or “rules of thumb.”

“A simple heuristic would be, ‘The most expensive car is always the best,’” he says, noting the top finishers in CR’s survey also are big-spending advertisers.

And Bussiere disputes Acura’s suggestion that the sample size was too small. “It is fine for the level of analysis and number of variables,” he says.

Bartlett also disagrees with the notion people who own a particular brand always will rate it highly, even if its performance is sub-par, to validate their own decisions.

“In general, what we’ve seen with research is that because cars are such a large purchase and play such an important role in people’s lives, people tend to score them favorably themselves,” he says.

However, he doesn’t think this phenomenon affected the brand perception survey because respondents were not prompted with brand names and asked what they think of them.

– with Eric Mayne

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com