Following annual tradition, we present the 2013 American Top Picks—the best choices for the car buyer who wants to buy from an American brand.
While this year's "official" Top Pick list includes no models from domestic brands, it does have several vehicles built in the United States. But we recognize that many shoppers favor a model from the Detroit 3 automakers, regardless of where it is manufactured.
A couple flag-waving American models that made this list last year, lost eligibility for 2013: the Ford Mustang GT and the Chevrolet Avalanche. Unfortunately, the GT's reliability fell below average and the Avalanche has been discontinued. The Top Pick pickup truck category also took a break this year since we haven't tested the extensively updated Ram 1500 (formerly known as "Dodge") or the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra. Crowning a Top Pick truck without having tested those two just wouldn't cut it.
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But we can shine the spotlight our top American choices in the 2013 Top Pick categories and the top-scoring domestic-branded models in Consumer Reports testing.
The requirement that Top Picks have average-or-better reliability, according to our Annual Auto Survey, has limited the inclusion for some high-scoring cars. Models like the Ford Fusion are too new for that information to be available. Others, such as the Dodge Caravan, have reliability that is too low to make the cut.
Let's explain the choices...
Budget car: Easy pick here: the Chevrolet Sonic LT sedan with its base 1.8-liter engine scores well—beating the Ford Fiesta sedan we tested—and was reliable in its first year. But the Sonic's goodness depends on how you option it. Although the Sonic LTZ hatchback we tested looks sporty, we were unimpressed by the 1.4-liter turbo/six-speed manual drivetrain and the hatch lacks the sedan's huge trunk.
Compact car: The Ford Focus SE, with the SFE ("Super Fuel Economy") package, scored really well in our tests, but first-year reliability has been lousy. That makes our pick the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, a well-finished car that's a benchmark of quietness in this class. First-year Cruze reliability issues have been worked out. The Dodge Dart doesn't score close, with its impressive ride and handling sabotaged by lackluster powertrains and uncomfortable front seats.
Midsized sedan: The Ford Fusion Hybrid is easily our top-scoring domestic midsized sedan. But we don't know if the 2013 redesign will be reliable yet. (Hopefully it is, but other recent Ford new product launches have been troublesome. Plus, anecdotally, our three tested Fusions had build quality issues.) The Chevrolet Malibu is a decent car, assuming you skip the Eco light-hybrid version, but we don't have reliability for that 2013 redesign, either. Chrysler just isn't playing in this class with their uncompetitive Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger.
Green car: Our "official" Top Pick was the standard Toyota Prius, chosen over several plug-in alternatives because of its combination of fuel economy and affordability. The obvious domestic alternative is the very nice Ford C-Max hybrid, but we don't know how reliable it is. That leaves us with the considerably more expensive—and much lower scoring—Chevrolet Volt. On the plus side, the Volt has been very reliable, owners love them, and you can get cheap lease rates.
Small SUV: Once again, a newly-designed Ford tops our scores: the Ford Escape Titanium. But we don't have reliability data yet. The Jeep Patriot and Compass aren't competitive. General Motors doesn't really sell a small SUV other than the just-introduced Buick Encore, which we have purchased but haven't tested yet.
Midsized SUV: The Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia score well and have average reliability. True, they're more "large" than midsized, but these GM twins vastly outscore other runner-ups, including the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge and Flex, and GMC Terrain. If you want something smaller than the Traverse/Acadia, look at a Jeep Grand Cherokee V6 (which has average reliability). We'll see how the updated-for-2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee scores soon.
Sports sedan: The Cadillac CTS scores well and reliability has been improving year-after-year. In fact, it's the most reliable domestic car. For now, it's free of Cadillac's annoying CUE system—but that will likely change with the upcoming redesign. The CTS outscores the smaller Cadillac ATS, a fabulously fun-to-drive car whose other myriad shortcomings drag down its score.
Luxury car: We're quite fond of the quiet-and-powerful Chrysler 300. This large sedan has a plush ride and roomy interior. The 300 V6 is more reliable than the V8-powered 300C and scores slightly higher. Both 300s outscore the Cadillac XTS.
Sports car: The outgoing Chevrolet Corvette Z06 scores very well, but reliability dropped to below average this year. Same with the Ford Mustang GT. But the Mustang V6 retains average reliability and is something of a performance bargain, especially if you go light on the abundant options.
Minivan: There's only one domestic company still building minivans. (That said, the Traverse/Acadia are minivan surrogates for many.) While the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan twins performed much better after their 2011 update, they continue to score far below competitors. They've also been unreliable.
Looking at the lists, three trends stand out. First, among domestic makes, new Ford products lead our Ratings across a variety of big-selling categories. Cars like the Fusion, C-Max, and Escape ride and handle very well and feel solid and quiet. We just hope their first-year reliability beats the troublesome records of the 2012 Focus, 2011-2012 Explorer, and 2011-2012 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX.
Second, while Chevrolet's road test scores don't top our Ratings, they are building some solid-performing small cars with decent reliability.
Finally, we think Chrysler has potential, as models like the Chrysler 300 and the updated-for-2014 Grand Cherokee demonstrate. But Chrysler needs to continue to upgrade their product line-up. The Dart needs more competitive powertrains (a nine-speed automatic will help), Chrysler needs a competitive midsized sedan, the new Jeep Cherokee needs to finally give that brand a good small SUV, and the next minivan needs to shake the subpar reliability that's afflicted the current van.
For a look back, see our 2012 American Top Picks.