For the first time since 1997, domestic auto brands, collectively, have surpassed import brands as a whole in vehicle appeal, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study released today.

In 2010, the APEAL score for U.S. domestic brands averages 787 on a 1,000-point scale - 13 points higher than the score for import brands (automakers headquartered in Europe or Asia Pacific). By comparison, in 2009, import brands outpaced domestic brands by five points. Among premium models, import nameplates continue to retain a notable edge, but mass-market models from domestic brands outperform those from import brands.

Domestic brands have been improving steadily in vehicle appeal during the past four years, with the greatest improvement occurring between 2008 and 2010. Improvement in 2010 is driven primarily by high-performing models from Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation, including several models that are all-new or have undergone major redesigns.

"Domestic automakers have performed three important actions during the past two years that have led to their gains," said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. "Firstly, they have retired many models that demonstrated low appeal. They have also introduced new, highly appealing models to their lineups, and finally, they have improved their existing models through freshenings and redesigns."

New models introduced by import brands between 2008 and 2010 have similar APEAL scores as models retired by these import automakers during the same period (averaging 784 vs.781, respectively). In contrast, newly introduced domestic models have strongly outperformed the models retired by domestic brands (803 vs. 758, on average).

Historically, vehicle models achieving high APEAL scores have been shown to generate faster sales, higher profit margins, and less need for cash incentives. High levels of vehicle appeal also have a strong influence on customer recommendation rates. Among the most highly satisfied owners (APEAL scores averaging 950 or higher), 97 percent say they "definitely will" recommend their vehicle. However, among the least-satisfied owners (scores averaging below 400), only 8 percent say the same.

"When new-vehicle buyers go through the shopping process, vehicle appeal, along with price and perceptions of quality, is of major importance," said Sargent. "Attributes such as exterior styling are primary determinants of whether a model makes the customer's consideration list in the first place, while other attributes - particularly those related to the interior of the vehicle - are critical in determining which model is ultimately purchased."

APEAL Model-Level and Nameplate Rankings

Ford captures five segment-level awards - more than any other vehicle brand in 2010-for the Expedition, Explorer Sport Trac, Flex, Fusion and Taurus.

Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen each garner two awards. Audi receives awards for the Q5 and Q7. BMW models receiving awards are the 3 Series and 5 Series. Chevrolet receives awards for the Avalanche and Camaro, while Mercedes-Benz earns awards for the E-Class Coupe and S-Class (for a fourth consecutive year) and Volkswagen receives awards for the GTI and Routan. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class achieves the highest APEAL score of any model in the industry.

Also receiving awards are the GMC Terrain; Honda Fit; Land Rover Range Rover; MINI Cooper (for a third consecutive year); and Nissan Cube.

Only two models rank highest in their respective segments in both the 2010 APEAL Study and the 2010 Initial Quality Study (IQS) released in June - the Chevrolet Avalanche and Ford Taurus.

Five award recipients in 2010 are all-new models: the Audi Q5; Chevrolet Camaro; GMC Terrain; Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe; and Nissan Cube. According to the J.D. Power Web Intelligence Division, at the time of its launch, the Chevrolet Camaro generated particularly high volumes of online discussion centered on new-vehicle appeal. Compared with other new models released in 2010, discussion volume for the Camaro is twice that of the second-most-discussed model.

Porsche is the highest-ranking nameplate in APEAL for a sixth consecutive year. Suzuki improves more than any other nameplate in 2010, compared with 2009.

The APEAL Study examines how gratifying a new vehicle is to own and drive, based on owner evaluations of more than 80 vehicle attributes. The 2010 APEAL Study is based on responses gathered between February and May 2010 from more than 76,000 purchasers and lessees of new 2010 model-year cars and trucks who were surveyed after the first 90 days of ownership.