The results of the annual Consumer Reports automotive report card caught a lot of people by surprise when they were released Tuesday – not necessarily because of which automaker claimed top honors, but because of which automaker did not.
A wave of redesigned vehicles helped catapult Subaru into the top position for the first time. It had finished second in last year’s ranking, and buoyed by recent successes with the Outback and Impreza, it improved two points this year to finish with an overall score of 75.
Subaru’s rise to the top meant that Honda’s four-year run as the top automaker among the 13 ranked was over. Honda drifted into fourth-place overall, and the problems caused by last year’s Japanese catastrophes didn’t seem to play much of a factor.
David Champion, Consumer Reports director of research, gave a blunt assessment of the automaker’s chief problem.
“They seem to be cheapening vehicles," he told The New York Times. "It's almost like a role reversal of where the domestics were 10 to 15 years ago."
Mazda showed the most dramatic improvement in this year’s rankings, rising from seventh place to second. Toyota finished in third place.
Overall, Consumer Reports editors and researchers tested 275 models from 13 automakers in reliability and road-test performance. Here’s a more in-depth look at what they found:
First, the bad news for Chrysler fans. The company finished dead last in the ratings again. By a long shot. Again. But there are silver linings for Chrysler. Plenty of them.
Chrysler's overall score improved eight points from last year, making it the second-most improved automaker. Its average road test score improved by eight points, the most of any automaker. Its overall reliability improved to average.
The turnaround is credited to Chrysler's redesigned fleet under new owner Fiat. The Italian automaker has been working doggedly to improve Chrysler's quality, and the work is paying off, especially with models like Chrysler 300, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Charger. The problem is the models that haven’t gotten an overhaul lately, and are being wound down from Chrysler's bad old days before more all-new vehicles from the Chrysler-Fiat alliance arrive.
"Their scores are dragged down by several older designs that score low in Consumer Reports testing or have reliability issues," said David Champion, senior director of research for the consumer organization. "As more new products are introduced, their fortunes could change if they can improve their overall reliability." Some of those models--Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Patriot.
Much like Chrysler, General Motors did not shake its funk, finishing second-to-last for the second consecutive year. Much like Chrysler, there's also some good news. Ten of GM's vehicles earned "recommended" status in the rankings, including the Chevy Cruze, pictured, the second straight year that GM reached double digits in that category after a two-year lull.
The Chevy Avalanche was rated as the best pickup for the third time in four years, as Consumer Reports noted that it "provides the best combination of utlility and versatility of any pickup" tested.
Reliability has been the Achilles' heel for the well-heeled Mercedes brand in recent years, as far as Consumer Reports is concerned. It has caused declines the past two years in the rankings. This year, CR editors say that the reliability has climbed overall for the carmaker, but that some of the more well-known models, such as the S-Class sedan and the GL SUV, remain "subpar." Overall, Mercedes-Benz finished 11th among the 13 automakers ranked in the 2012 results.
As dramatic as Mazda's rise was on the charts, it was equalled by Ford's fall. The automaker fell from fifth place last year to 10th overall in the latest Consumer Reports automotive report card. The rating notes that below-average reliability of some new models, due largely to the "troublesome" MyFord Touch Infotainment system, pictured above, hurt its grade. Consumer Reports has been especially hard on Ford's new communications system, and he company says it is continuing to address some of the magazine's complaints.
On a bright note, the Ford Mustang earned Best Sports Car honors for the second straight year, as Consumer Reports analysts noted the 5.0-liter V8 in the GT coupe provides excellent acceleration and good fuel economy in its class.
Volkswagen finished in ninth place overall on the Consumer Reports automotive report card, third among European automakers.
Yet some of its best-selling models, including the Jetta and Passat, hurt it in the rankings. Consumer Reports emphasizes its disappointment with the two, citing Jetta for a "stingy" interior and "lackluster" handling, while the Passat gets flat-out insulted with a "more mundane, less sophisticated" synopsis. Ouch.
Then there's the flipside for the Volkswagen Group. Maligned as its Passat and Jetta offerings may be, Consumer Reports had nothing but praise for VW's sister company, Audi, especially the Audi A6 and A8, noting that they had posted big gains in road testing. Inconsistent reliability had thwarted the Audi in years past, but now it's a key factor in stabilizing Volkswagen Group as a whole in the rankings.
BMW finished eighth overall in this year’s Consumer Reports rankings, a notable advantage over its main adversary, Mercedes-Benz. But similarities exist. CR notes that both brands have average liability and are “well mannered” on the road.
And like its chief competitor, BMW was hurt by some its most popular models. Consumer Reports points to the inconsistent reliability of some of the turbocharged Mini Coopers--Mini is part of the BMW Group along with Rolls-Royce-- and the 5 Series that hamper BMW’s overall grade.
The bad news for Hyundai: The Elantra was edged out for best-small-sedan honors after winning the title four consecutive years. The good news: the Sonata makes its debut as a top pick, winning the affordable family sedan category.
Consumer Reports says it chose the four-cylinder Sonata as a less expensive alternative to the Camry hybrid, and that it provides a roomy interior with deft handling and good gas mileage, at 27 mpg combined, all at a price that comes just a little bit higher than many smaller sedans.
Overall, Hyundai placed seventh in this year’s rankings.
For the second consecutive year, Volvo remains ahead of the rest of the European pack. It finished in sixth place overall in this year's automotive report card, with Consumer Reports editors noting that the redesigned S60 helped Volvo cement its frontrunner status.
Still, "average reliability and less-than-stellar test scores" prevented Volvo from climbing further up the charts. And Consumer Reports said overall, "the European automakers were stymied by confusing controls and inconsistent reliability" in the Swedish brand that is now owned by Chinese automaker Geely.
After an eighth-place finish last year, Nissan ticks up three positions in this year's rankings to No. 5. Consumer Reports editors attribute the automaker's rise to steady increases in its reliability and road-test performances.
Its sub brand Infiniti G earned top honors in the sports sedan category, as analysts noted its "blistering acceleration" and well-crafted interior, making it one of the highest-scoring overall sedans in the rankings.
Nissan's fifth-place position solidifies a solid showing for Japanese automakers, who dominated the Top 5 this year. But there's some caution to be heeded, says David Champion, Consumer Reports director of research.
"While Japanese automakers still hold the top five spots, their lead is shrinking," he said.
Honda, winner of the past three overall Consumer Reports automaker reports cards, has been dethroned. It finished fourth in this year’s report, as its overall score slipped two points. Consumer Reports notes that Honda has been hurt by several redesigned models, including the Civic and Odyssey, that "didn’t measure up to their predecessors."
It's the second time in three years that no Honda models claimed a best-in-segment prize. But the report notes that despite the shortcomings that sunk the automaker in this year’s ratings, Hondas are overall "still among the most reliable on the road."
Of the ten categories in which Consumer Reports named a winner this year, Toyota took home best-in-segment prizes in five of them. Toyota remains among the top five automakers for the third consecutive year in the CR report card, largely because most of its vehicles bring home high test scores.
The revamped Camry Hybrid could be considered the best of the bunch. It earns plaudits for its combined 38 mpg and "crisper handling," says the CR report. Other keys include its smooth ride, quick acceleration and improved interior.
"Combined with the improved Camry, Toyota’s ability to maintain a competitive lead among hybrids and SUVs is a big factor in its strong presence on this year’s list," said Consumers Reports automotive editor Rik Paul.
Among the 13 manufacturers rated by Consumer Reports, Mazda showed the most dramatic improvement, climbing into second place overall after a seventh-place finish only one year earlier. Consumer Reports cited an improved Mazda3 as a key factor in the company’s rise.
The model enjoys an all-new six-speed automatic transmission that highlights the manufacturer’s Skyactiv-Drive technology. The Madza3 earns high marks for fuel efficiency as well, reaching 28 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.
Of all the automakers included in the Consumer Reports automaker report card, none ranked higher than Subaru, which inched upward two points to an overall score of 75 this year. And of all Subaru’s models, none tested better than the Impreza, which inched past the Hyundai Elantra to claim the top pick in the small-sedan class.
The Impreza, redesigned for 2012, got high marks for a smooth ride that “rivals some luxury sedans,” according to the report card and a roomy interior. Its combined fuel economy of 27 mpg is impressive, especially considering the Impreza is an all-wheel drive vehicle.
Subaru has been on a sales tear the last few years, winning over more and more customers to its solidly reliable vehicles that come packed with plenty of utility and arguably the best all-wheel-drive system (standard in all Subarus) in the auto industry. This crowning by Consumer Reports should help he Japanese brand even more.
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