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BANDON, Ore. — While Wednesday's news that Toyota was temporarily halting production and sales of eight models in U.S. and Canada dominated the headlines, something that began as a "small problem" has led to Toyota dropping in quality perception down to No. 7 among mass market brands, according to CNW Research's latest Purchase Path study.

Toyota usually flip flops between the top ranking and No. 2.

Basically, CNW conducted a survey asking new-vehicle intenders how they perceived certain brands on a scale from one to 10. (With low being 1-3; medium, 4-6; high, 7-9; and ultra high, 10).

From model years 1997 (when the data begins) through 2009, Toyota ranks in the top two each year. However, for model-year 2010, it fell to No. 7 with a score of 8.51.

"The problems really began with a small problem: The T100 ‘full-size' pickup was scary bad," said Art Spinella, president of CNW Research, explaining Toyota's slide.

"A variety of other recalls on vehicles such as Tundra and warranty issues such as the Multi-Function Display in the Prius added their own black marks," he continued. "Consumer Reports halting a long-time practice of giving an automatic ‘pass' on any new Toyota product was a major blow. The 'Halt Sale' directive to dealers impacts not only new vehicles but the used vehicles."

Spinella said CNW is performing special surveys about the recalls, and added a side note regarding Toyota's situation: "CTS Automotive provides actuators and electronic components. If the Toyota problem is a 'drive by wire' issue, it explains why this has taken so long to identify and could result in a far more lengthy delay in fixing properly."

However, according to recent reports, apparently CTS has discoverd what is causing the problem and has accelerated production on replacement parts to get these to Toyota as quickly as possible. Additionally, apparently the two companies are still working on a way to fix the vehicles on the roads that would have been included under the cease sales order.

While Toyota deals with its situation, brands like Ford and Hyundai have show significant improvements in consumer perception, according to CNW. As recently as the 2006 model year, Ford was No. 14 among mass market brands, but has climbed up the rankings to No. 6, scoring 8.69, bringing it ahead of Toyota.

Hyundai was No. 18 in 1997 before moving as high as No. 3 in the mid-2000s. After dipping to ninth last year, the brand ranks eighth for 2010.

Honda, with a score of 9.01, ranks as the No. 1 mass-market brand, a spot it has held since 2007. In fact, the brand has been in one of the top two spots each year since 1997. The complete top five is as follows: Honda, Buick, Mazda, Volkswagen and Saturn, respectively.

For all brands, Porsche (9.37) was first, followed by Cadillac (9.31), Volvo (9.25), Mercedes-Benz (9.13) and BMW (9.11).

Rounding out the top 10 were Lexus (9.09), Honda (9.01), Audi (8.97), Infiniti (8.93) and Range Rover (8.86).

Opportunity for Domestics?

While Toyota is mired in this "chaos" stemming from its recall and sales/production halt, it may give the Big 3 a chance to make headway in the market, according to James Bell, of Kelley Blue Book's Kbb.com.

"While most in the business are pulling for Toyota as the financial impact on many local communities could be heavy if this drags on for long, our friends in Detroit are looking to this moment as a way to recapture lost market share," Bell explained.

In fact, Kbb.com traffic analysis indicates that 13 percent of new-vehicle shoppers browsing Toyota's lineup also cross-shopped new vehicles from General Motors. Moreover, 11 percent checked out Ford vehicles.

"So, there remains a massive opportunity to impact the impression of Ford and GM within this loyal owner base," Bell pointed out.

Interestingly enough, GM and Ford are offering incentives for Toyota owners to defect and instead buy from them.

"In years past, such a move might be seen as shallow given the perception — real and perceived — that these domestic products were sub-par," Bell highlighted. "But among the latest 2009 and 2010 offerings from GM and Ford are vehicles more than comparable from a quality, refinement and efficiency perspective." 

He added: "While Toyota struggles, GM and Ford are asking drivers to give them a second chance, and in many cases, this will lead to very impressed new GM and Ford drivers."