That Bible of the intelligencia, Consumer Reports, has released its 2010 Annual Auto Issue, and once again, denizens of Cambridge, Austin, Berkeley, Eugene, and their sister university towns all over the land are parsing its pages, seeking cars that will maximize their utility. Or maybe I’m projecting. Anyway, with apologies to Michael Karesh and True Delta, here’s a summary of the work of the wonks from Yonkers and East Haddam.
“Top picks”–the best in each of ten categories, is COTY based on systematic analysis. The best car overall is the Lexus LS 460L, with “an outstanding 99 out of 100 in our road test…” This V8-powered, preternaturally quiet rolling living room “isn’t exactly fun to drive,” but it does “deliver brisk acceleration and a relatively good 21 mpg overall” (same as the porky Accord V6), says CR. Best sports sedan: the Infiniti G37 for the fourth year in a row–test score 95; Best in greenitude: the Prius. Chevy takes the honors in both SUV (Traverse) and pickup (Silverado) categories.
The other Top Picks: Elantra SE (small sedan), VW GTI (sporty car), Nissan Altima (family sedan), Forester (small SUV), and Mazda5 (family hauler).
More big news: Hyundai jumps from ninth to fourth place overall among the manufacturers, confirming the Buddhist view of the world that everything changes. (I know, I know, but somehow, I can’t wrap my mind around Hyundai’s ascent. They should at least change their name, like Datsun did.) The CR overall manufacturer scores factor in reliability on the one hand, and road test scores–everything else–on the other. Hyundai earned 73 out of 100 points despite less than stellar road test scores, where it tied Toyota (74/100) for eighth place. You might think Hyundais must be particularly reliable to pull themselves up from these mediocre road tests, but the reliability graphs, while good, have fewer filled in red dots than Honda (77 overall) and Subaru (ditto).
While Asian manufacturers soar, the Americans… well, it hasn’t been this bad since the British burned down Washington during the War of 1812. Two decades ago, the MIT-based authors of The Machine that Changed the World predicted we would overtake the Europeans in reliability by the end of the ‘90s. But the ‘90s ended with our manufacturers still dominating CR’s list of “used cars to avoid.” That trend continues, with Chrysler scraping bottom (46/100), most of its models having below-average reliability or low road test scores, followed by GM (57), with “spotty” reliability and “too many older models [with] subpar performance.” Ford earns an encouraging 64, despite “some older models” that drag down its score.
Meanwhile, the Euros have us all–even Ford–beat, despite the downgrading of MB (69) and BMW (67) for their “frustrating controls.” Reliability in MB and VW (72)–long a stain on German engineering–has improved. CR notes that the VWs Golf and CC now have “excellent” reliability, and the Jetta 2.5 is “above average” (B). But reliability is ebbing in some Beemers.
In another noteworthy development, “Older cars have become far more reliable than they were even five years ago,” according to CR. “There has never been a better time to buy [used].” That may be, but for Toyotas and Hondas, there’s no good reason to buy used if you can afford new, because depreciation is strictly linear, says Greg Nowell, a professor at the State University of New York, Albany.
Nonetheless, don’t assume that all cars from top manufacturers are up to the standard—check the reliability tables! says CR, noting that 2000-2003 Honda Odysseys have unreliable transmissions.
Odyssey slushboxes notwithstanding, in terms of reliability, Honda sweeps the “best of the best” used cars, 2000-2009, topping 6/9 categories, with Lexus ES, Infiniti M35, and Miata taking “upscale cars,” “luxury cars,” and “sports & sporty cars,” respectively.
GM dominates worst of the worst ‘00-09, with 16 out of 33 entries, mostly trucks and vans–17 if you count the Korean “Chevy” Aveo. The rest: six Chryslers (Sebring fans will smile to know that their fave convertible made the list), five VWs, the Audi A6 Allroad, Kia Sedona, Lincoln Aviator, Merc R-Class, and Mini Cooper convertible.
CR’s “owner satisfaction” scores are interesting because they sometimes sharply diverge from the stereotype of CR’s subscribers, reflecting, perhaps, a greater diversity of demographics, as well as that different people love their cars for very different reasons. Owner satisfaction may be about cost and reliability, but it is just as likely to reflect love, however irrational. For example, in first and third place, we have the Dodge Challenger V8 (92% of owners would buy it again), despite a lousy road test score, and the base Corvette and the Porsche 911 Carrera S (89%, each), despite the former’s underwhelming reliability.
But the Fusion hybrid takes second place (91%) and the Prius takes fourth (88%). Can we infer that greenitude inspires love—especially when it comes with a patriotic flavor? Does this reflect CR’s demographics? We’ll examine those questions in a subsequent article.
Scraping bottom in the buy-it-again category, at 37%, is the Sebring (4-cyl sedan), followed by the Nitro (38%), the Caliber (45%), and two Chevies, the 5-cyl. Colorado (45%), and the Cobalt sedan (49%).
Top fuel economy scorers: Prius (44mpg), the oxymoronically-named Smart ForTwo Passion (39), which is also the slowest car to 60 mph, (14.6 sec), Honda Insight EX (38), VW Golf TDI manual (38), Civic Hybrid (37), Fusion hybrid (34) and on down through several others to the Mini manual (33).
Best values, in order: Fit, Prius, Golf (2.5), Civic EX, Jetta TDI, Elantra SE, Corolla LE, Camry LE (4-cyl), Forester 2.5X, and Camry Hybrid. Worst values include the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, the Hummer H3, and the Cayenne S.
Cars you’re most likely to be caught dead in: the Aveo and the Kia Rio, as well as the 4790 lb. Dodge Dakota—but not the Smart–proving that safety is more than just having more metal than the other guy. (Consumer Reports did not use my glib phraseology on this matter, or anything even remotely resembling it.)
Several notable “Highlights from the auto track:”
* The ’10 Taurus’ score sagged slightly due to “new styling that compromises visibility and accommodations.”
* CR’s Fusion test car had what Ford said was a glitch in the software that interfered with braking. A test driver “hit the pedal and didn’t feel the car stopping as it should have.”
* CR tested smart throttles on the MB E350 and the VW Jetta Wagon, and “…even with the accelerator wide open, hitting the brakes immediately disengaged the throttle and allowed us to stop the car safely.”
And finally, this: Consumer Reports has suspended its recommendation of eight Toyota models, based on the unintended acceleration problem. The models are all those that have been recalled: the ’05-’10 Avalon, the /’09-10 Matrix, the ’07-’10 Tundra, the ’08-’10 Sequoia, and some versions of the ’07-’10 Camry, and the ’09-10 Corolla and RAV4.
Consumer Reports buys its test cars anonymously from dealers, and conducts more than 50 tests and evaluations on each car. Reliability assessments are based on subscribers’ experience with 1.4 million vehicles, assessed in an annual questionnaire.