The dominance of Japanese automakers in Consumer Reports' annual auto reliability ratings is starting to fade, with two European automakers and one U.S. brand securing places in the top 10 of the 2013 rankings.
Lexus – the luxury division of Toyota – scored the top spot this year, followed by Toyota and Acura. Audi – the luxury division of Volkswagen – came in fourth, followed by Mazda, Infiniti, Volvo, Honda and then the sole U.S. brand, the GMC division of General Motors. Subaru was 10th.
But Consumer Reports didn’t have all good news for Toyota.
Separately, it has decided to revoke its recommendations for Toyota’s Camry, Rav4 and Prius V hybrid station wagon because they have scored low in insurance industry crash tests that measure what happens when the front corner of the car hits a pole or other object. The cars have long been among Consumer Reports' top picks.
Audi’s A4 also lost its recommended status for the same reason.
“Now that more than 50 vehicles have gone through that test, our engineers feel we cannot recommend a vehicle that has a poor safety rating on a crash test,” said C. Matt Fields, a Consumer Reports spokesman. “Those four have been tested and retested, and they don't score well.”
In the reliability ratings, Buick, another GM brand, leaped nine slots to 12th place this year. All of its cars with the exception of the V6 engine version of the big LaCrosse sedan ranked average or better.
But Chevrolet, GM’s flagship nameplate, came in at only 17th out of the 28 car brands Consumer Reports ranked, dragged down by the below-average reliability of the Camaro and Cruze. Both earned below-average reliability scores.
Domestic brands filled most of the bottom of the rankings.
Ford fared particularly poorly.
Of the 31 Fords in the survey, only the F-150 pickup truck with the 3.7-liter V6 engine rated above average. Including its Lincoln brand, almost two-thirds of the 34 Fords vehicles in the survey received scores that were much worse than average.
Ford continues to struggle with its My-Touch phone connectivity and in-car electronics system and also has had problems with its vehicles sold with the EcoBoost turbocharged V6 engine, said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports automotive test director.
But overall Mini, a division of BMW, scored the lowest in the rankings.
The next lowest are Lincoln followed by Ford, Cadillac, Dodge and Jeep. After that, Nissan, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Chrysler’s Ram truck line rounded out the bottom 10.
Overall, the five most reliable vehicles, according to Consumer Reports, are the version of the Subaru Forester that does not have a turbo-charged engine, the Toyota Prius liftback, the Lexus ES 300h Hybrid, the Scion xB and the Toyota Prius C.
The five least reliable vehicles are the Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, the turbocharged Ford Escape, the Mini Countryman, the Ford C-MAX hybrid and the Nissan Pathfinder.
The annual survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, looked at the experiences of drivers of 1.1 million vehicles. Consumer Reports uses the survey data to compile reliability histories on vehicles and predict the dependability of new models.
This year’s results demonstrated that new cars on the market are for the most part mechanically sound, Fisher said.
“Automakers know how to make a transmission and engine that works well,” Fisher said.
In-car electronics, the phone connectivity, radio and navigation systems are causing the most problems in new vehicles, he said.
Of the 17 problem areas Consumer Reports asks about, the electronics generated more complaints from owners of 2013 models than for any other category.
The systems freeze. They don’t respond to touch commands and they don’t recognize voice commands, cellphones and music players.
“We are seeing a lot of issues with Ford, Honda and Cadillac,” Fisher said.
The survey also demonstrated the uneven performance of automakers. While Audi was a top brand, its Volkswagen sibling scored 20th out of 28 nameplates. Similarly, Nissan, which owns Infiniti, scored 22nd.
Plug-in hybrids – cars that can run for some distance powered by electricity before a gasoline engine kicks in and extends the range by hundreds of miles - scored poorly in the survey.
While the Prius ranked as Toyota’s most reliable car, the plug-in version of the Prius was the automaker’s lowest-scoring vehicle. Similarly, the plug-in version of Ford’s C-Max hybrid ranked as its least reliable vehicle overall.
“A plug-in has two power trains, an electric one and then a gas engine and transmission. If you have two power trains there is more to go wrong,” Fisher said.
Conversely, pure electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf are proving to be very reliable.
“There is less complexity, no transmission, no fuel system, no gas engine. There are a lot of pieces out of the puzzle,” Fisher said.