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.

Acura officials dispute the rating. “Our research shows Acura is ranking high in technology aspects and brand awareness and those types of things,” a spokesman says.

Rankings are based on a blind telephone survey conducted recently 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.

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.”

When Honda Motor Co. Ltd. created the Acura brand for the U.S. in 1986, the auto maker did not intend for it to compete directly with established luxury players.

Instead, Acura would serve as an “intercept brand” for Honda customers looking for a “near-luxury experience,” says John Mendel, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. executive vice president. Before Acura, those customers would have been considering more expensive European luxury brands.

That strategy soon will come to an end as Acura attempts to reposition itself to compete more directly in the luxury sector, Mendel says, with the first attempts coming after the debut of the next-generation NSX supercar in 2010.

“For the first time, we're now ready to take Acura to Tier 1,” he tells journalists at the Detroit auto show. “This involves the retail network, the product and, frankly, our mindset as an organization.”

Last year, Acura sold 180,104 vehicles, down more than 10% from 2006.