Three U.S. models cracked Consumer Reports’ list of its top picks in 10 automobile categories this year, and Buick became the first domestic brand to land in the magazine’s annual ranking of the best auto manufacturers.
Tesla Motors’ electric Model S sport sedan won overall honors in Consumer Reports' selection of the best car models. This was the second consecutive year Tesla charged to the top.
Although there were many “impressive” new models this year, the magazine said, “none was able to eclipse the innovation of the Tesla.” The $89,650 Tesla that Consumer Report tested is “a technological tour de force, a high-performance electric vehicle with usable real-world range, wrapped in a luxury package.”
Tesla’s achievement is tempered by the fact that it sells only has one model, compared with the full vehicle lineups offered by other automakers, said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of automotive testing. But Fished said he anticipated that the Model X sport-utility that Tesla plans to start selling later this year will also be good because it shares many of its components with the Model S.
“The question is whether Tesla can keep its reliability together as it expands with the Model X this year and later the planned Model 3,” Fisher said. “Their reliability is average now, and it doesn’t take much to sink below the line.”
The Buick Regal is another U.S. model joining the best list, taking the sports sedan crown. The magazine called it a “surprisingly agile” car that combines a “Europhile driving experience” with a “strong” value-for-the-money equation.
Buick needs cars like the Regal to overcome the brand’s reputation as “an old person’s car,” Fisher said. “It is small, tight and agile. It is like a German sports sedan, not a floaty American barge.”
“For years domestic automakers built lower-priced and lower-quality alternatives to imports, but those days are behind us,” Fisher said. “Today many domestic models can go toe-to-toe with the best imports.”
Three Subaru models landed on the Top Picks list, its Legacy as midsized sedan, the Impreza as compact car, the Subaru Forester as small sport-utility vehicle.
Toyota had two, the Highlander as midsized SUV and the Prius as green car.
Asian-branded cars, which have dominated the magazine’s best cars lists over the years, still top six of the 10 categories.
But this year’s results show a leveling of the global automotive playing field, Fisher said.
“Not too long ago, all 10 were Japanese,” he said.
Japanese brands have held more than 70% of the spots since 1997.
Subaru’s performance was especially impressive considering it only makes all-wheel-drive vehicles, which face a handicap in the automotive testing metrics, Fisher said.
The all-wheel-drive components make the cars heavier, which hurts both fuel economy and acceleration.
But the Subarus “did very well in ride and handling,” he said. “They tend to be quiet and they are very practical vehicles.”
Consumer Reports’ Top Picks are chosen from 270 vehicles the organization has recently tested. They must rank at or near the top of their category on overall road test scores, they must have earned an average or better predicted-reliability rating, based on problems Consumer Reports’ subscribers reported on 1.1 million vehicles in the latest survey, and they must perform adequately if included in crash or rollover tests by the government or the insurance industry.
Consumer Reports has been rating individual vehicles since 1997. Just three years ago the magazine started rating auto brands based on both their reliablity and performance in driving tests.
Since then, Lexus has dominated the brand rankings. The luxury division of Toyota scored highest this year -- for the third consecutive year.
Mazda was second, offering “a solid lineup of cars that are reliable, fun-to-drive, and deliver impressive fuel economy,” the magazine said.
The other brands rounding out the top five were Toyota, Audi (the luxury division of Volkswagen) and Subaru.
Porsche, also a Volkswagen division was sixth.
Buick, due to improved reliability scores for its lineup, was ranked seventh, leapfogging eighth-place Honda. South Korean automaker Kia was ninth and BMW 10th.
Currently, 83% of Buick vehicles are on Consumer Reports’ recommended list. That compares with 58% for Honda and none for Chrysler.
The magazine said the tony Mercedes-Benz brand was the biggest loser this year, dropping to 21st place from from ninth last year. Bad reliability scores, especially for its new CLA compact sedan, hurt the brand.
Despite Buick’s gains there were only slight improvements in the other GM brands. GMC ranked 14th, Chevrolet 19th and Cadillac 20th. Ford also showed some improvement in reliability problems, but only 19% of its models are on Consumer Reports’ recommended list. It ranked 24th.
Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Fiat -- the sister brands of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles -- continue to be plagued with reliability issues and all scored with Mini as the lowest brands in the rankings.
Consumer Reports didn’t issue brand rankings for Ram, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, Mitsubishi, Smart and Tesla because either the organization has too few currently tested models from those makes or it lacked sufficient reliability data.