While Ford and Hyundai were most improved, Lexus was ranked first overall.

While perceived quality certainly isn't the same as real, empirically-determined quality, it undoubtedly plays a role in the new car buying process. That's good news for Ford and Hyundai, whose quality in the eyes of consumers improved more than any other automakers', according to the 2012 ALG Perceived Quality Study.

ALG's study, which measures perceived automaker quality on a 100 point scale based on the opinions of more than 3,000 U.S. consumers, ranked Honda first for mainstream brands with a score of 81.3.

Ford has seen its score improve 37 percent to 70.5 since the first study was conducted in 2008, while Hyundai improved 25 percent to 62.3 over the same period.

"Changing the perception of quality is a long-term proposition," Eric Lyman, ALG's vice president of residual value solutions, said in a statement. "Consumers recognize the product improvements made by Ford and Hyundai. Honda and Toyota are still widely recognized as being the quality leaders, but as more consumers increasingly consider brands like Subaru, Ford and Hyundai, that perception gap erodes."

The highest ranked brand overall was Lexus at 85.4, while other top-finishing luxury automakers included Mercedes, 82.9; BMW, 81.5; and Porsche, 80.

Other brands to achieve significant year-over-year gains were Fiat, Scion, Dodge and Kia.

"Kia and Dodge are great examples of perception improvement based on product and marketing," said Lyman. "Both brands have launched exciting new product and impactful messaging. While they both face significant history to overcome, consumers are beginning to recognize their improvement."