Consumer Reports '06 car picks
(They hate us! They really hate us! :)
Asian brands dominate magazine's '06 car picks
By Matt Nauman - Mercury News
Japanese cars continue to dominate Consumer Reports annual rankings, but the magazine says the continuous quality gains of past decades have stalled.
The well-read Consumer Reports annual April auto issue hits newsstands Tuesday. Those looking for independent car advice will learn that Japanese cars, trucks, minivans and sport-utility vehicles earned all 10 of the magazine's top picks for 2006 -- the first time since 1997 that no U.S. or European model has been a top pick. Also, 14 of the magazine's 20 coveted top recommendations and 54 of its 89 standard recommendations were Japanese makes.
Honda and hybrids did particularly well. Four of the 10 top picks were Honda models (Civic, Accord, Ridgeline and Odyssey) and a fifth was the TL from Acura, Honda's upscale brand. That top 10 list also included endorsements of the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and Toyota Highlander -- all higher-mileage gas-electric hybrids.
Still, after reporting years of across-the-board improvements from the world's automakers, the editors at Consumer Reports said progress has hit a plateau.
Japanese and South Korean vehicles have the fewest problems at 12 per 100 vehicles, but that number hasn't changed since 2002. Vehicles from Ford Motor, General Motors and Chrysler average 18 problems per 100, a rate that has been stable since 2003.
European makers are the least reliable, at 21 problems per 100 vehicles, and that pattern has held steady for four years.
What does it mean? ``It could indicate the most reliable new cars have reached a practical limit as to how trouble-free they can become,'' the magazine says.
David Champion, who heads the magazine's auto-test facility, has some guesses as to why quality gains have stopped. The increased use of electronics, which are the biggest area for owner problems, is one possibility. Or it could be that greater quality gains are no longer cost-effective for automakers.
``We're not quite sure exactly what it is,'' he said. Where reliability rankings go in the next two years or so is ``the big crystal-ball issue.''
Consumer Reports' auto issue rivals the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in terms of anticipation and significance of a single edition of a magazine. It routinely sells 300,000 newsstand copies, about twice the sales of the next-most-popular issue. The magazine has about 4 million print and 2 million online subscribers. Forrester Research has identified Consumer Reports as the most important source for people looking to buy or lease a car.
This year's model includes a major change. The magazine, published by the non-profit Consumers Union, has been recommending cars for years. However, in 2005, it was forced to withdraw some picks after the insurance industry released some crash-test data just after the auto issue was published.
So, this year, the magazine offers its readers two tiers of recommended vehicles. The standard recommendation goes to vehicles that perform well in tests conducted by the magazine's editors, have average or better reliability and provide good crash protection, if they've been tested. To get the top recommendation, a vehicle also must have been rated very good or excellent in crash tests conducted by the government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Of the 20 vehicles getting the highest recommendation, nine were from Toyota and Honda and their upscale divisions, Lexus and Acura. An additional five Asian makes were on the list. Four European cars (Audi A4, Saab 9-5, Volvo S40/V50 and Volvo S60) and two from an American automaker (Ford's Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans) made that list.
Of the 89 vehicles getting the standard recommendation, 54 came from Japanese automakers, 21 from domestics, 11 from Europeans and three from South Koreans.
On the other end of the spectrum, Consumer Reports also names names when it comes to vehicles with poor reliability.
Its list of "bad bets" -- vehicles with much-worse-than-average reliability over multiple years, include BMW's 7-Series and X5 V-8, Chrysler's Town & Country AWD minivan, the Lincoln Navigator, the Mercedes-Benz CLK and E-Class V-8, the Saturn Vue and the Volkswagen New Beetle, Jetta and Passat wagon V-6.
It identifies the Infiniti QX56, a full-size SUV, as the vehicle with the most problems in both the 2005 and 2004 model years. The magazine's reliability numbers were determined based on surveys of readers who own more than 1 million vehicles. Forty percent of those with a 1-year-old QX56 said they had problems; 67 percent of those with a 2-year-old QX56 reported problems.
Consumer Reports has been rating cars since 1953. It accepts no advertising, buys vehicles anonymously and conducts tests at its 327-acre facility in Connecticut.