IN GOD--AND GM--WE TRUST

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General Motors Corp. is loaded with debt and the subject of bankruptcy speculation, but give it credit: GM scores tops for trust among U.S. consumers. There's a downside, however: GM also shows up on the list of companies that Americans least trust, a sign that consumer opinions in America often are as divided as Red States and Blue.

These are among the findings from the American Demographics 2006 Consumer Perception Survey, conducted by Synovate. The survey sought views on a range of issues from consumers both in the U.S. and, for purposes of comparison, five countries in Western Europe. Here's what these consumers had to say:

For all industries regardless of location, what's the most trustworthy company? The least trustworthy?

The General rules: 9.3% of U.S. consumers cited GM (or Chevrolet) as the company to trust. Across demographics, auto marketers drew the most mentions in the question about trusty companies. Ford and Toyota tied as the second most trustworthy companies; Honda followed.

Ford scored first with lower-income households; Toyota came out No. 1 in upper-income homes, cited by 9.4% of households with $75,000-plus income. Consumers with high-school diplomas chose GM as the most trusted company; those with college or graduate degrees put their trust in Toyota.

The oldest consumers trust Detroit: GM (the favorite for those aged 55-64) and Ford (first for 65-plus). Honda was the top pick for 25-to-34-year-olds. But there's hope for GM on the age front: 18-to-24-year-olds ranked it first, ahead of Honda.

General Electric was the most trusted company outside cars, scoring tops in trust for 3.3% of U.S. consumers. But the hard-charging conglomerate has an age problem: It did best among the oldest Americans but barely registered with young consumers.

That's the good news. Now the bad. American consumers' picks for least trustworthy companies: Ford, Wal-Mart, Kia, GM and Enron.

Ford and GM showed up as companies to trust and distrust. That's not surprising; these are huge companies that have both fans and foes. And Enron is the poster child for a trust buster.

Wal-Mart, too, is a lightning rod, but it appears to have a growing trust problem. In American Demographics' first Consumer Perception Survey last May, Wal-Mart came in second for "least trustworthy" but tied for second as "most trustworthy." Last spring, about 6% of consumers ranked it tops on trust; in the new survey, just 1% did. That raises questions about whether consumers are buying Wal-Mart's strong defense of its treatment of employees and other corporate practices. What region gave Wal-Mart the worst score for trust? Its home turf, the South.

Kia's disappointing score-3.6% of consumers listed it as least trustworthy-reflects perception problems facing the South Korean marque. Its parent, Hyundai, scored least trustworthy for 1.8% of consumers. Synovate Senior VP Thomas E. Mularz says these scores in part may reflect that many consumers still have misgivings about Korean cars. "They have a big uphill battle to overcome," he says.

The three most trusted companies in Western Europe-combining survey results from France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and U.K.-were consumer-electronics marketer Philips, Mercedes-Benz and Sony. Least trusted: Italy's Fiat, followed by Kia.

What company's advertising is most believable? What company's advertising is most at odds with its image, reputation or product?

First place in advertising credibility for U.S. consumers was a virtual draw among the world's three largest automakers: GM (listed by 7% of consumers), Toyota and Ford (both 6.9%). Honda came in fourth (4.3%).

GM had its best credibility scores in households with income below $50,000 and older consumers. Toyota ads earned the top score for credibility with younger consumers (18-24, 25-34, 35-44) and richer ($50,000 up to $75,000; $75,000-plus), more signs of how Toyota connects with lucrative market segments. "Toyota has a very favorable image, especially in the States," says Mr. Mularz.

Best score for ad credibility beyond cars went to Wal-Mart, cited by 2% of consumers.

Least credible advertising? Ford (listed by 7% of U.S. consumers), GM and Wal-Mart (both 5.7%), and Kia (3.1%). The list mirrors that of "least trustworthy" companies. Again, the curious entry is upstart Kia, a relatively small brand that appears to have a big image problem.

In Western Europe, consumers gave five automakers top scores for believable ads: BMW, Audi and Renault (tied for second), Toyota and Volkswagen (tie). Sony ranked highest for non-auto advertisers.

Least credible in Europe: Renault, McDonald's, Fiat, Peugeot. (Within a country, the least-credible advertisers tended to be locally based offenders-Deutsche Telekom in Germany, Telefonica in Spain, Shell in the Netherlands-rather than a faraway multinational.)

When do you expect to be driving an alternative-fuel vehicle?

Not anytime soon: Americans on average don't expect to switch to gas-electric hybrids or other alternative-fuel cars for 19 years (2025); 10.9% of drivers don't expect to make the switch in their lifetimes.

Younger, upper income, more educated and West Coast consumers showed the most interest in going the alternative route. The 25-34 age group looks to change to alternative fuel in 13 years. Consumers with household income of $75,000-plus expect to switch in 14 years, vs. 26 years for households below $25,000.

People with graduate degrees are looking out 15 years, vs. 26 years for those with a high school diploma. On the trendsetting West Coast, consumers on average expect to be driving alternative-fuel cars in 15 years, vs. 22 years in the South.

Consumers in Europe expect to change to alternative fuel in 15 years, four years ahead of the U.S., according to the survey. French consumers lead Western Europe, expecting to switch in 11 years. Why the interest? Gas prices. Gas last month cost $5.16 a gallon in France vs. $2.35 in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The biggest innovations in alternative-fuel technology will come from vehicle manufacturers based in what country or region?

Consensus: Japan, birthplace of the thrifty, trendy Toyota Prius hybrid.

Among U.S. consumers, 43.3% chose Japan and 39.3% bet domestic manufacturers would lead the way. Young and affluent households-groups with strong interest in alternative-fuel vehicles-solidly backed Japan. The most educated consumers (graduate degrees) by a small margin put the U.S. ahead of Japan. Just 12% of U.S. consumers expect Europe to lead on alternative fuels.

Europeans, too, put Japan on top (39.9%) for alternative-fuel innovation, but 38.3% expect manufacturers in Europe to lead the charge. Europeans have a dismal view of R&D efforts across the pond; just 14% expect U.S. manufacturers to be the big innovators.

What media outlet provides the most trustworthy and objective news?

CNN (cited by 16%) and Fox News (12.5%) scored best among U.S. consumers. The cable channels connect with distinct viewers. CNN came in first for most age groups (18-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54); Fox led among the oldest (55-64, 65-plus). CNN was top pick in all income brackets except $25,000-$50,000, where Fox came first.

Third place was a surprise: Consumer Reports (5.9%). The magazine resonates with the affluent; 10.6% of consumers in $75,000-plus households cite Consumer Reports as the most trustworthy, objective news source, testament to its influence on buying decisions of that group.

What Web site provides the most reliable source of information on the Internet?

Top picks were Yahoo (cited by 11.3% of U.S. consumers), MSN (10.4%), Google (9.9%), CNN (8%), AOL (5.2%) and ConsumerReports. org (3.1%). Google scored first among younger consumers, with 22% of the 18-24 crowd and 15% of the 25-34 group choosing to Google.

In Europe, no single media property emerged as most trustworthy and objective. But Europe has a clear choice for most-reliable Web information source: Google ranked tops in France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain, and scored No. 2, behind the BBC, in the U.K.

Google's strong showing in the U.S. and Europe as a reliable Web information source is intriguing since the site largely leaves it to users to figure out what in the sea of unedited search results should be believed or discarded. But that leaves consumers in control, and those consumers count on Google to lead them to the truth.

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