No vehicle does everything perfectly, but many do a lot of things well. For instance, plenty of cars with good reliability are also comfortable, quiet, and fun to drive.

Still, there will probably be trade-offs. You may have to decide between a good ride and sporty handling. Or you may wind up sacrificing fuel economy in exchange for engine power or cargo space.

This guide will help you make a short list of acceptable candidates. We’ll tackle all the major vehicle types and narrow down the most notable. Within those types we’ll guide you to the best we’ve found and point out others with exceptional abilities. We’ll also tell you about the cars our readers love and provide some tools to take the guesswork out of the decision-making process.


Key Questions to Ask Yourself

If you’re unsure which type of vehicle will fit your needs best, begin by asking yourself some basic questions. Your objective is to find models that excel in the areas that matter most to you.

How Many People Will You Carry?
Most vehicles can hold five people, although the center-rear position may be so uncomfortable that it barely qualifies as a seat. That’s something to try out when you’re taking test drives.

If you need to carry more people, consider a minivan or three-row SUV. In some models that third-row seat may be suitable only for children. Remember, when the seats are occupied, they eat up cargo space.

Two-door cars may have sporty looks, but consider how often you’ll need to use the rear seat. Passengers have to twist and stoop to get in, and folding the front seat to load gear or secure a child safety seat back there gets old fast.

How Much Cargo Do You Carry?
If outdoor activities or hauling equipment is important, an SUV, a minivan, or a wagon is your best bet. A pickup truck is useful if you carry heavy loads, material that would dirty up the interior, or cargo too tall to fit in an enclosed vehicle. In fact, four-door crew-cab pickups are the most widely sold choice. But be aware: Many have a short bed. If you plan to use your pickup more as a work vehicle than for family duty, consider buying a regular-cab truck with a longer bed.

Automatic or Manual Shift?
Though the death of the manual transmission may be exaggerated, a vast majority of modern cars come only with automatic transmissions. Many automatics now provide a manual-shift mode that works much like a manual transmission but without a clutch. Manual-shift mode is also handy when driving in mountainous areas because it provides more control on long descents.

Still, in certain cars a stick can make the driving experience more fun. But in the end, as fun and practical as stick shifts may be, they can be a chore in stop-and-go traffic. In addition, today’s six-, seven-, and eight-speed automatics can help cars return fuel economy as good as—and often better than—the same car with a manual. 

What’s Your Driving Style?
Are you a workaholic commuter or a harried parent with daily carpool duty? Perhaps you need practicality but crave a modicum of fun for the commute home or on weekends.

Taking a hard look at your driving style and needs is key in choosing a vehicle. If you’re a real driving enthusiast who wants to savor every aspect of the driving experience, you’ll want to focus on cars that emphasize quickness and handling prowess. But lots of cars these days serve up agile handling without sacrificing ride, comfort, and cargo space the way many sporty cars do.

If you’re really into comfort more than driving at the edge, you’ll probably want to consider a sedan. Many models fit the comfy-cruising mode, from midsized and large sedans to midsized and larger SUVs.

Power or Fuel Economy . . . or Both?
Most vehicles are available with a variety of engine and transmission combinations. Usually one is a small, economical choice and the other delivers more power but at the sacrifice of fuel economy. Often a manufacturer will make the small engine available only on base models or lower-level trims, saving the stronger engine(s) for more expensive uplevel versions.

Smaller cars and SUVs primarily use four-cylinder engines. These often deliver the best fuel economy but lack the power and smoothness of a V6. But for most people, four-cylinders provide the best mix of fuel economy and performance.

Turbocharging is becoming much more prevalent because it can boost power without hurting fuel economy much. Many models that once used a V6 now have a turbocharged four-­cylinder instead, and turbo V6s have begun to replace V8 engines in bigger cars and trucks. Ford even uses small turbo V6s, which deliver V8-like performance, in the F-150 pickup truck.

Other fuel-savers include hybrids and diesels. Hybrids usually return excellent fuel economy in city or stop-and-go traffic, and diesels excel at delivering highway fuel economy.


Factors to Consider

In addition to driving style, engine size, and vehicle type, you still need to consider other factors, including some that aren’t so clear when you’re standing in a dealership.

That’s why Consumer Reports has always rated each vehicle through a variety of assessments. To make it as easy as possible for you to know which vehicle to buy, we give every vehicle we test an Overall Score that encapsulates four factors:

Our road-test program looks at real-life performance by running about 60 new cars and trucks each year through more than 50 objective tests and subjective evaluations at our 327-acre test facility in Colchester, Conn. These tests include each vehicle’s emergency-handling and braking capabilities. We then compile the data and publish our vehicle ratings, where models are ranked against their peers. Subscribers to ConsumerReports.org can access the full content of all road-test reports and test results for any tested model, and survey findings.

Part of the testing process includes our fuel-economy evaluations. Unlike the tests done by the Environmental Protection Agency, which use a dynamometer, we drive the cars on real roads.

Cars to Consider?
Highlights from our tests and surveys.

You’ll find our results broken down into City, which represents urban, stop-and-go driving; Highway, which is a mix of rural and interstate highway driving in a warmed-up vehicle; and Overall, a combination of the two factors, weighted more heavily toward the highway results. (Learn more about fuel economy.)

We gauge reliability through annual surveys of our subscribers, where we ask them to tell us about anything that went wrong with their cars over the past year. The more than 500,000 vehicles from our 2016 Annual Auto Survey gave us insight into problem areas for 17 model years of cars on the road.

For a 2017 or early 2018 model, the new-car reliability prediction is calculated by averaging reliability scores for the most recent three years of production, provided the model didn’t change significantly during that time. If we lack data, we predict the model’s reliability based on the brand’s overall history of building good- or poor-quality vehicles, as well as the previous generation of that particular model’s reliability. We won’t recommend any tested vehicle with below-average reliability. (Reliability details can be found on the model pages.)

Those same surveys also provide the data for our third major assessment, owner satisfaction, which asks owners of 300,000 1- to 3-year-old vehicles whether they would buy their current car again. (Again, this information is on the model pages.)

To determine a vehicle’s safety rating, the final factor of our Overall Score, our experts incorporate data from crash tests performed by the ­Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (iihs.org) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (safercar.gov). The IIHS also conducts rear-crash and roof-crush tests, and NHTSA evaluates and rates vehicles on their rollover resistance.

We give additional consideration to advanced safety systems—when offered as standard equipment across all trim levels of a particular model—that can help avoid an accident or lessen the impact of a crash. We also deduct points if a vehicle’s shifter is confusing to use or lacks fail-safes. (See which new cars have standard or optional advanced safety features.)

In addition, these charts include our accident-avoidance scores, which are derived from our evaluations and track tests, and primarily rely on emergency-handling and braking evaluations.

By merging those criteria, we’ve leveraged our expertise and resources to give you all the key information you need to identify a good vehicle for you.

After some serious data crunching, we have developed an Overall Score that not only helps car buyers sort the good vehicles from the bad but also holds the automotive industry to the highest possible standards. We want to help you buy a great car today, and we want to make sure an even better, safer, and more reliable car is available the next time you’re in the market.

Although the score is all-­encompassing, we have weighted the data so that a subpar performance in any critical area—such as below-average reliability or a poor crash-test result—will drop a car significantly farther down in the rankings. The Overall Score isn’t static. As new testing, reliability, and safety data arrive, the scores will be updated.

Vehicles that do well in all those factors earn our recommendation.