YONKERS, N.Y. — A survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center revealed that the difference perceived by American consumers between the top car brands and the challengers is shrinking.

The 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey indicated that Toyota, Ford, Honda, and Chevrolet maintained their top positions but have seen the point gap decrease. Additionally, most of the top brands saw double-digit drops in their total scores.

"Dramatic events in the automotive industry seem to be affecting how consumers view auto brands. Erratic gasoline prices and a struggling economy have pushed consumers to prize low operating costs and good reliability," said Jeff Bartlett, Consumer Reports deputy editor for autos online.

The survey’s scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven categories: safety, quality, value, performance, environmentally friendly/green, design/style and technology/innovation. Combining those factors yields result in the total brand-perception score. While the scores reflect a brand's image in consumers' minds, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand's vehicles or results from Consumer Reports testing, according to the company.

Toyota continues to dominate overall in brand perception despite slipping by 17 points compared to last year’s results. Other top brands, Ford, Honda, and BMW, saw their scores drop more than 20 points. The two leading General Motors brands, Cadillac and Chevrolet, did relatively better with only single-digit decreases.

Respondents indicated the most important factor in car buying continues to be safety (65 percent). The leading brands in overall perception in the survey usually excel in multiple categories. Volvo, however, has maintained a top 10 spot for years by virtue of its safety reputation alone, according to Consumer Reports. This year, however, Volvo experienced a 21 percentage point drop in this factor from last year's 70 to 49 percent. If it continues, this trend could drop Volvo out of the overall top 10 in future years and into the second tier.

Consumer Reports’ survey found scores edging downward in the quality factor, with Toyota, Honda and Ford sharing a three-way tie for the top spot and the top brands.

"Brand perception can be influenced by many things, from professional road tests to marketing. Word-of-mouth from friends and neighbors can be a slower moving, though influential contributor as ownership transitions from the initial honeymoon phase to the seven-year itch," Bartlett said.

In the performance category, BMW’s score dropped significantly from last year's 27 percent to only 19 percent, according to the survey. This drop leaves the German automaker vulnerable to Ford and Chevrolet.

Toyota again led the environmentally friendly/green category, likely driven by the Prius and other hybrids, as well as some creative marketing, according to Consumer Reports. Smart made a surprise showing this year, debuting in the top five despite having no new products or a sizable advertising budget. Honda again claimed the third position while Ford slipped slightly this year despite introducing the new Fiesta and Focus small cars.

After a year of seemingly endless headlines espousing the electrifying virtues of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, those brands didn't spring ahead in this factor. Chevrolet remained consistent with 12 percentage points while Nissan inched up about two percentage points, rounding to eight percent.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey of 2,045 adults from Dec. 1-5, 2011, and collected survey data from 1,702 adults in households that had at least one car. To view the full results, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.