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IRVINE, Calif. — There's a new No. 1 auto brand for customer loyalty, according to Market Intelligence data from Kelley Blue Book's Kbb.com.

Toyota no longer holds it first-place perch. It has now been replaced by Hyundai, which moved past the embattled Japanese automaker and Honda to claim the top spot for brand loyalty in February.

Specifically, February data indicated that 56.3 percent of current Hyundai owners were checking out new vehicles from the brand, a 10.4-percentage point increase from the fourth quarter of 2009.

This hike was strong enough to push Hyundai up from No. 3 in the fourth quarter to No. 1.

Meanwhile, Toyota dropped to No. 3 after its loyalty declined from 57.7 percent to 53.3 percent.

Honda remained second, as 55.8 percent of its owners were looking at new Honda vehicles, a 0.7-percentage point upswing from the fourth quarter.

In some more good news for Hyundai, its Sonata model made its debut on the Kbb.com's Top 10 Most-Researched New Vehicles list.

The Sonata was No. 5 in its first appearance on the list, placing behind only such "mainstay" vehicles as the Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Honda CR-V.

"2009 marked an unprecedented year for the Hyundai brand and we are well-poised to keep the momentum going in 2010," stated John Krafcik, president and chief executive officer at Hyundai Motor America. 

"With impressive new vehicles like the all-new Sonata and our dedication to deliver stylish, fuel efficient and affordable vehicles, more customers are adding Hyundai models to their shopping lists," he continued.

Additionally, Hyundai's Kelley Blue Book values were relatively stronger than the overall car segment average during February, as they were up 2 percent from the previous month. Meanwhile, car segment values were down 0.3 percent month-over-month on average.

"Hyundai is clearly benefiting from a perfect storm — a result of introducing passionate new products like the 2011 Sonata and 2010 Tucson, while Honda's mainstream vehicles like the CR-V and Accord are a bit stale in the marketplace and Toyota is experiencing a huge consumer perception crisis," explained James Bell, executive market analyst for Kbb.com.

"To sustain this momentum, Hyundai should continue to promote its attractive new-vehicle lineup, solid warranty offer and strong price-points to new-car shoppers," he added. "Hyundai's main challenge in the near future will likely come from domestic automakers like Ford and GM as they gear up for battle over buyers starting to look for a change from ‘Camry-land.'"