Japan automakers lose ground in Consumer Reports reliability ratings

The dominance of Japanese automakers in Consumer Reports’ auto reliability ratings is starting to fade, with two European automakers and one U.S. brand placing in the top 10 this year.

Lexus, Toyota Motor Corp.'s luxury division, 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 truck division of General Motors Co. Subaru placed 10th.

But Consumer Reports didn’t have all good news for Toyota. The magazine dumped some of its favorite vehicles — Toyota’s Camry, RAV4 and Prius V — from its list of recommended cars because they scored poorly in an insurance industry crash test.

In revoking those endorsements, Consumer Reports looked at the results of the so-called small overlap crash test. The Camry is the best-selling passenger car in the United States, and the RAV4 is one of the most popular compact sport utility vehicles.


All three 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.”

The small overlap crash test simulates a wreck in which a front corner of the car hits another car or a fixed object. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group, established the test because of the severe damage caused in such crashes.

“We are looking at a range of solutions to achieve greater crash performance in this area,” Toyota said in a statement.

The loss of Consumer Reports’ endorsement could hurt sales of the cars, said Jack Nerad, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.

“Those people who buy Toyotas have a propensity for following Consumer Reports,” Nerad said.

In the reliability ratings, Buick, another GM brand, leaped nine slots to 12th place this year. All of its cars ranked average or better, with the exception of the V-6 engine version of the big LaCrosse sedan.

Despite the strong performance of Buick and GMC, domestic brands filled most of the bottom of the rankings.

Ford Motor Co. fared particularly poorly.

Of the 31 Fords in the survey, only the F-150 pickup truck with the 3.7-liter V-6 engine rated above average. Including its Lincoln brand, almost two-thirds of the 34 Ford vehicles in the survey received scores that were much worse than average.

Ford continues to struggle with its My-Touch in-car technology system and also has had problems with its vehicles sold with the EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 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 were Lincoln, followed by Ford, Cadillac, Dodge and Jeep. After that, Nissan, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Chrysler’s Ram truck line rounded out the bottom 10.

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 are for the most part mechanically sound, Fisher said.

In-car electronics, including 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 can freeze and not respond to touch commands or recognize voice commands, cellphones or music players.

“We are seeing a lot of issues with Ford, Honda and Cadillac,” Fisher said.

Plug-in hybrids — cars that can run for some distance powered by electricity before a gasoline engine kicks in — 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 powertrains, an electric one and then a gas engine and transmission,” Fisher said. “There is more to go wrong.” Conversely, pure electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf are proving reliable.

“There is less complexity — no transmission, no fuel system, no gas engine,” Fisher said. “There are a lot of pieces out of the puzzle.”

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