Nearly half of Americans reported that they would wait longer before their next vehicle purchase, according to the results of Consumer Reports' 2009 Auto Brand Perception Survey.

The weak economy is forcing consumers to assess the value of their current vehicle. The number one reason people delayed purchase is that their vehicle is in good shape. The other top reasons are:

• Vehicles have become too expensive.

• General concern for the weak economy.

• Consumers are waiting for fuel-saving technologies, like hybrids to become more affordable.

• Interest rates for vehicle financing are too high.

Delaying a car purchase is more apparent in lower-income households, where difficulty in obtaining financing is an issue for nearly a quarter of those respondents.

"Car owners are considering the real costs and risks in buying a new model, emphasizing needs over wants," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy online automotive editor, Consumer Reports. "The shift in behavior comes at a time when the economy has put jobs and household budgets in peril. And for those looking to buy, the finance crunch has made it more difficult to secure a loan. These factors have pushed consumers to change priorities and have influenced brand perceptions."

The survey asked which brands consumers thought were the leader in each of seven categories: Design/Style, Performance, Quality, Safety, Technology/Innovation, and Value. In rank order, Toyota, Honda, Ford, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz dominated overall scores for brand perception.

Americans rated Toyota and Honda highest in overall brand perception, at 193 and 149 points, respectively. Those brands also led in quality, value, and environmental friendliness. Overall brand perception is an index calculated as the total number of times that the particular make was mentioned as an exemplar across all seven categories, divided by the total unaided mentions.

Among the seven factors in the survey, Safety stood out as the most important when shopping for a new vehicle. It was rated number one by 25 percent of respondents. The top ranking was fueled by women, who responded at a 2:1 ratio versus men in support of Safety. For men, quality was the leading factor by a significant margin. Consumers perceive Volvo leads the Safety category. No other brand in any category can boast such a commanding lead over the 2nd ranked brand in a given category.

Twenty-one percent cited Quality as a most significant factor in choosing a new model. As with last year's survey, Toyota and Honda are perceived to lead in Quality. In perceptions of Quality, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac also made the top-5 list.

In tough economic times, getting the most for your money is important. Nearly half of respondents agreed, with 49 percent considering Value as a leading factor. Consumers feel Honda delivers the best value, scoring 29 percent this year and 30 percent last year. Toyota shows a slight increase to 27 percent. Kia also moved up the rankings to 27 percent, from 23 percent last year.

Porsche, at 29 percent, and BMW, at 28 percent, top the performance category. Toyota has earned its placement in this ranking with increasingly powerful and fuel-efficient powertrains. Chevrolet and Ford round out the group, with each brand offering strong V6 and V8 engines.

Toyota continues to own the "green car" concept in the public's eyes, propelled by the Prius hybrid. Honda has long nurtured a reputation for good fuel economy and low emissions. Chevrolet, Ford, and GMC round out the top five in a tie at 11 percent each.

Lexus captured the lead from Mercedes-Benz with its eight-percentage point increase over last year despite a product line that has seen few changes. On the other hand, Mercedes-Benz slid from 24 percent to 19 percent.

Green and luxury brands lead in Technology/Innovation, with Toyota improving over last year's 30 percent score and taking top honors. Cadillac and Lexus tie for second at 22 percent. Ultimately, Technology/Innovation is the lowest priority for general consumers when shopping for their next new car based on a ranking of the seven factors in this survey.

While some brands earn a deserved reputation over time, others may influence their perception through design and marketing. Perception is not reality, and it pays for consumers to review available research rather than risk a false assumption.