The past decades have carried America through an evolution in transportation as our love affair with cars deepened and as we took to the skies. Along the way, Consumer Reports tested, advised, and advocated to protect you.

1930s

June 1936
Taking the wheel.
For the first time, we rated 22 low- and medium-priced automobiles selling for less than $800. We designated two Best Buys, 17 Acceptable, and three Not Acceptable models for various reasons, including safety, manufacturer’s financial viability, poor backseat ride, and bad design. We also rated gasoline, noting few differences among regular grades.

A vintage photo of testing car tires at Consumer Reports in the 1930s.September 1936

A tell-all about tires. We published the findings of a government study that revealed startling differences in mileage among a dozen tire brands, and included our own list of Best Buys based on price and expected life span. We also gave readers advice about buying retreads and reported that industry collusion was keeping tire prices artificially high.

May 1938
Two-wheeler trend.
In the wake of the mid-1930s bike boom, we declared that cycling had secured its place “as a minor means of transportation, as a sport, and as exercise.” After testing, we named one Best Buy, a Schwinn, and two Not Acceptable, a Steelcraft and a Samson, which we said were made with cheap parts.

July-October 1939
Consumers get railroaded.
In a four-part series, we discussed the deterioration of the nation’s passenger rail system just as cars were becoming cheaper and more popular. Railroad management made the problem worse, we said, by eliminating routes and employees, curtailing schedules, and raising fares. We chastised the carriers for misleading ads that depicted amenities consumers were unlikely to get. And we argued that Americans were paying too much to support lines that were in bankruptcy or nearing it. To prevent the collapse of the railroad system, Consumer Reports suggested industry consolidation and government ownership.


1940s

July 1942
Take a hike.
 Whether Americans were planning a weekend getaway or a vacation, we pronounced, “There isn’t a finer vacation than a well-planned hiking trip.” We offered tips on how to walk properly and choose the right shoes and clothing.

Photo of the 1946 Civilian Jeep from the July 1946 issue of Consumer Reports Magazine

July 1946
The civilian Jeep.
The ubiquitous and sturdy vehicle that contributed mightily to the war effort came stateside in peacetime. But we said it was an unworthy passenger vehicle that wasn’t safe for children and was hard to get in and out of. The seats weren’t very comfy, it rode badly, and the roof protection was rudimentary at best.

A photo of a three-piece luggage set stacked in pyramid formFebruary 1949

The birth of discount air travel. Capital Airlines ushered in a new era with its “air coach” service between Chicago and New York featuring fares about one-third less than regular rates. Amenities, we pointed out, were less plush than in first-class. There were no free meals, pillows, or blankets, and both arrival and departure times were not ideal. “The air coach leaves at the inconvenient hour of 1 a.m.,” we noted. But we also reported that the bargain service was proving to be immensely popular with consumers.


1950s

October 1950
Anatomy of a safer car. We analyzed the factors that mattered most in surviving a crash. A low vehicle was more stable than a high one, and good visibility was key­—wide roofs and windshield pillars were common problems of the day. Other dangers included doors that flew open in a crash and rigid steering posts that didn’t bend or break off on impact. One solution that drivers then considered unpalatable: shoulder straps and safety belts.

March 1954
Duped by Duke. Just drop four pill-sized metal tabs into your gas tank and get a ring and valve job while you drive, according to an ad for a product called Motaloy, endorsed by the screen legend John Wayne. What’s more, it cost just $6 (vs. $100 to have the job done in a garage). After three months of testing, we found that Motaloy didn’t improve acceleration or mileage, nor did it reduce oil consumption, improve engine compression, or dissolve carbon deposits.

A photo of a 1950s era Volkswagen Beetle

October 1954
Big support for small imports.
The U.S. wasn’t making small, inexpensive cars, so we tested four imports, including the Volkswagen, aka the “Beetle” or “Bug.” Just right for the American small-car buyer who wanted novel design, stamina, and quality workmanship at a moderate price ($1,495), it got our thumbs-up.

January 1956
Safety became part of the “sell.”
 For years, vehicle danger was a taboo subject. So we applauded when the industry began showcasing not just power and styling but also car safety. That included the near-universal redesign of latches to prevent doors from opening in collisions, and the option to purchase seat belts and recessed steering-wheel hubs. But we pointed out that many models had unresponsive steering, and that braking and road-holding ability remained “far below their potentials.”

A vintage photo from the 1950s of car seat belt testing at Consumer ReportsMay 1956

Seat belts: A solution in need of improvement. Although the combination shoulder harness/lap seat belt wasn’t required for new cars until 1968, we were staunch seat-belt supporters from the get-go. In our tests, however, 26 of 39 failed our static and simulated crash tests. We advocated both for better belts and for federal standards.

October 1959
Compacts come home.
On the heels of declining auto sales in 1958, it was estimated that one in four cars sold by the 1960 model year would be in the compact/small-range category—one that barely existed three years earlier. With models such as the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon, and Plymouth Valiant, American automakers took aim at the imports Volkswagen and Renault, the dominant players in the category. We lauded Detroit’s decision to offer some sensibly sized, reasonably powered vehicles as a “good thing for all.”


1960s

May 1961
Anchors away.
 We welcomed the agreement by U.S. automakers to provide built-in seat-belt anchors in all 1962 cars, but saw it as only the beginning. We called for a strong educational effort and firm scientific evaluation of the belts’ efficacy in preventing injury and death as a means of achieving widespread public acceptance.

A close-up photo of a car's speedometer and odometer

February 1963
Rental-car rip-offs.
A Consumer Reports investigation revealed that rental-car customers were overcharged by $4 million in 1962 because of inaccurate odometers. We acknowledged that the errors were not deliberate, but we urged rental companies to recalibrate their odometers, a relatively simple adjustment.

February 1966
Holding carmakers accountable.
We published a rare bylined article, by Ralph Nader. His 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” was an indictment of the auto industry. The groundbreaking exposé posited that the public had been misled for decades, tricked into believing that they were at fault for almost all car-crash carnage and that the vehicles themselves weren’t the cause. The scandal that ensued eventually led to direct government intervention in auto safety and the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which required manufacturers to notify consumers about defects in their products.

April 1968
Putting the brakes on unsafe cars.
American Motors’ Ambassador had a problem—and Consumer Reports thought it was a significant one. We found that gasoline streamed from its main fuel-tank vent tube in our tests, which could cause a fire in a crash. The automaker verified our findings but initially disputed that the spillage was serious. We thought the risk warranted a Not Acceptable designation for the car. The company eventually modified the vent line in the Ambassador and in the similarly flawed Rebel, thereby eliminating the problem.


1970s

March 1971
An attack on air pollution.
About half of all air pollution, we said, was attributable to automotive wastes, which could cause respiratory ailments, blood disease, and mutations. And though there were no studies linking lead poisoning illnesses or death directly to atmospheric lead concentrations, we applauded new low-lead and no-lead fuel as a step in the right direction, but were emphatic that America needed better alternatives. “It’s not just the pollution of the air,” we said. “It’s the never-ending, never-adequate strips of pavement pasted over fresh earth to accommodate the family’s first car, second car, and third car. And the metal carcasses and rubber tires heaped high alongside those highways—mute tribute to waste and the depletion of finite resources the automobile requires.”

September 1971
The Corvair and carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Chevrolet Corvair had been plagued by dangerous design problems since its 1960 debut. Now it was found to be exposing occupants to deadly carbon monoxide from engine fumes that entered the cabin through the heater. In demanding that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigate the case from “top to bottom,” we said: “The question of how well or poorly this huge manufacturer (General Motors) exercised its corporate responsibility has fundamental bearing on the proper behavior of all corporations and on future legislation.”

August 1972
Safeguarding children.
In our tests of 15 car seats, an infant carrier, and a child’s harness, we designated 12 of the 17 models Not Acceptable. We continued to push for stronger federal safety standards. Nine years later, more stringent regulations finally helped remove inferior child-restraint designs from the market.

October 1972
Focusing on airfare unfairness.
We noted a proliferation of fare types—for clergy, seniors, youth, families, small children, and military personnel. The purpose, we said, was to fill seats on many flights that might otherwise remain empty. But we warned, perhaps prophetically, that “unless carefully controlled by government regulation, however, discount airfares can have the effect of penalizing regular passengers—either because their travel needs are inflexible or because they can’t determine the most economical circumstances under which to fly.”

A photo from showing a line of cars waiting for gasoline at a Texaco station during the 1970s Arab oil embargoFebruary 1974

The great gas-shortage scam. The Arab oil embargo often meant price gouging and long lines at the pump. We clarified for consumers that this was “a temporary shortage of refined fuel ... aggravated by the Arab embargo on crude oil.” Fostering the specter of an energy crisis, we said, “can serve as an immense weapon to stampede alarmed politicians and a confused public to accept oil industry ‘solutions’ to the problem—such as junking many of the environmental safeguards that are a thorn in the industry’s bankroll.”

April 1974
Bogus gas-mileage claims.
The Environmental Protection Agency began calculating gas-mileage figures for cars in 1973. But we criticized its calculations for not being based on real-world driving tests. We pointed out that manufacturers didn’t have to reveal the figures and that those whose cars got poor mileage were likely to launch advertising campaigns based on subjective experiments that left a “blatantly false impression.” For a truer picture, we tested every vehicle in simulated city traffic driving and on one-day trips at various speeds and over a period of about six months, calculating overall fuel economy.

October 1976
Building a better electric citicar.
We testified before Congress that electric cars had the potential to help fill the need for cheap, pollution-free, short-range transportation. In September 1976, Congress had passed a bill that allocated $160 million to study the technology. But we also found that what was available at the time was none too good. After testing the Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, at $3,396, we characterized it as useful mainly as a demonstration of how far electric-car technology had yet to go. When the car’s brakes failed—and for other safety and operational issues—we rated it Not Acceptable.

A photo of a moped, or motorcycle-bicycle hybridJune 1978

Embracing auto alternatives. Given rising fuel costs, we tested the increasingly popular moped, a motorcycle-bicycle hybrid capable of running 100 miles on a gallon of gas. Because of its low speed (under 30 mph), it wasn’t suited to major roadways, but it was just right for errands around town, we said, weather permitting.

June 1979
The downside of diesel.
 Frightened by the possibility of another gasoline shortage, some motorists sought relief in the form of diesel-powered vehicles, we reported, because of their exceptional mileage. But we warned that the typical diesel passenger car emitted about 50 times as much pollution per 10,000 miles as a car with a gasoline engine. If diesel sales increased to 25 percent of all new autos sold, we concluded, the vehicles would become the single largest mobile source of particulate emissions.


1980s

April 1983
Crash-worthiness improves.
 After the government began crashing cars in 1978 to simulate the effects of an impact at 35 mph, manufacturers responded with substantially safer designs, we reported. When we first evaluated the results, two years earlier, only 27 percent of drivers and passengers would have escaped serious injury. For the 1982 models tested, the anticipated survival rate rose to 60 percent.

An illustration of a Ford motor vehicle travelling in reverse.

September 1985
A fight against government inaction.
Despite 207 deaths and 4,597 reported injuries when various Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles unexpectedly slipped out of Park, the Ford Motor Company refused to recall them. Nor did the government compel the automaker to do so. Instead, it allowed Ford to send letters and dashboard stickers to owners in 1980 advising them not to leave their cars until the transmission lever was securely in Park, the ignition was shut off, and the parking brake was set. When a NHTSA administrator attributed the body count to sloppy drivers and insisted that Ford’s letter advisory was sufficient, we said: “This insistence will be of little consolation to the family of Louise LaBelle (who had been run over and killed by a Thunderbird parked in her driveway) and to the families of other owners of Ford vehicles who will die this year and next if NHTSA doesn’t do its job.”

April 1988
Advocating for antilock brakes.
Though we highly recommended them, antilock brakes were available on only 3 percent of cars. Expense was a key impediment. Because the brakes, which allow safe, straight stops, were produced in such low volume, they cost more than $900 (and as much as $2,230) in the few cars that offered them as options. It wasn’t until the 2012 model year that antilock brakes became standard in all cars, with the requirement of electronic stability control (ESC) systems.

April 1989
Cars need airbags.
After we lobbied with other safety advocates for more than 20 years for cars to be outfitted with airbags, the government mandated “passive restraints”—either airbags or automatic safety belts—starting with every 1990 passenger car. Chrysler agreed to install airbags in all of its domestic models and Ford agreed to do so in half of its production run. But General Motors said it would equip only about one in seven cars. The rest were to have what we described as a “maldesigned” automatic belt system that was so awkward that most people would probably detach the belts and use them manually, if at all. Airbags became mandatory as of the 1998 model year.


1990s

A photo of the cover of the July 1991 issue of Consumer Reports highlighting the best and worse airlinesJuly 1991

Fed up with flying. A survey of more than 140,000 Consumer Reports readers revealed growing disenchantment with flying. They complained about crowded flights, cramped spaces, congested airports, delayed flights, and inconvenient connections. In short, air travel was a shadow of what it had been a decade or so earlier, we concluded.

August 1994
Breathing on a jet plane.
Despite the 1990 ban on smoking aboard domestic routes, flight attendants continued to complain about burning eyes, breathlessness, noxious fumes, and persistent respiratory illness related to air travel. To gauge the problem, we asked volunteer travelers to monitor the temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels on 158 regular commercial flights. The result: On almost a quarter of them, carbon-dioxide levels were high enough to make the air stale. One reason, we said, had to do with the fact that newer planes recycled as much as half of their ventilation air instead of providing 100 percent fresh air, as older models did.

September 1996
Lights flicker on electric cars.
By this time, experts in automotive technology, including those at Consumer Reports, had come to think that an electric car would be at best a niche vehicle. Our test of a 1995 Solectria Force bolstered that belief. The car never exceeded 30 miles before running out of juice, and its performance was sluggish.

October 1996
Protecting riders from rollovers.
 NHTSA had long been aware that vehicle rollovers were a serious problem, particularly with SUVs. The agency unsuccessfully attempted to set a standard to predict rollovers. We successfully petitioned NHTSA to develop an emergency-handling test—based on how a vehicle performed in motion, especially when turning sharply—to identify rollover-prone models and keep them off the road.


2000s

A photo of a Firestone tire being examined during Congressional hearings in 2000

November 2000
The Ford-Firestone firestorm.
Firestone’s recall of millions of all-terrain tires (mostly on Ford vehicles) was bungled from the start. The tires were implicated in at least 88 deaths as a result of tread separations, many involving rollovers. Firestone initially blamed motorists for improperly inflating the tires, then issued a belated recall. That left motorists in most states waiting up to a year for replacement tires. The debacle raised serious questions about the government’s ability to protect the public. In the aftermath, we fought for and won key reforms including stricter NHTSA tire testing, more effective reporting requirements, and harsher penalties for manufacturers that failed to report defects. The new standards also included provisions requiring the government to develop a dynamic rollover test that could account for critical differences in suspension design, choice of tires, steering response, and the presence of an electronic stability control system, all of which affect emergency handling.

January 2002
Wreck revelations.
To salvage more cash from crashes, insurers created a little-known shadow industry that sold poorly repaired cars—vehicles that should have been junked for parts—to unsuspecting consumers, found a six-month CR investigation. We revealed that there’s no way for consumers to know the history of a used vehicle because of varying state laws about rebuilding practices and damage disclosure. We advised consumers about how to avoid being cheated.

December 2002
A push for greener technology.
Despite the growing popularity of hybrid gas/electric vehicles, these automobiles remained a niche product. A promising longer-range technology, we pointed out, was the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power even cleaner all-electric vehicles.

A close-up photo of power car window switchesAugust 2003

Power window fatalities. At least 25 children died during the previous decade from injuries involving power windows and cars, usually when they had their heads out of windows in parked vehicles and accidentally leaned on the switch, causing the glass to move up forcefully. We identified two types of switches that were inherently riskier: rocker switches and toggle switches. We supported legislation requiring a national performance standard for power windows. In response to a petition by safety groups including Consumers Union, in April 2006 NHTSA banned power window rocker and toggle switches from U.S.-manufactured vehicles.

April 2005
Lifesaving stability control.
We considered electronic stability control (ESC) a significant technology that could save twice as many lives as airbags and child safety seats combined. It prevents loss of control in a turn by automatically applying the brakes on one or more wheels to keep the vehicle on its intended path. We declared that no SUV or pickup would be “CR Recommended” unless it performed safely in NHTSA’s rollover test or, if not tested, had ESC, which wasn’t standard until 2012 models.

March 2007
Plane safety loses altitude.
Our investigation underscored the concern that air transportation was losing a margin of safety. Major carriers were farming out more than half of their maintenance work—fixing wheels, repairing engines, and more, we reported. Many repair stations, both in the U.S. and abroad, employed unlicensed, unscreened staff, we said, and the Federal Aviation Administration was increasingly using statistical analysis, not visual inspections, to catch problems.

A photo of a yellow, two-wheeled motor scooterMarch 2009

The scooter sensation. We tested models from Honda, Kymco, Motorino, Vespa, and Yamaha, and said that for novices, they were easier to ride than a motorcycle. We described them as fun and fuel-efficient: 65 to 100 mpg at a steady cruise.





2010s

A photo of a white car that has collided with a tree

April 2011
Deadly distracted driving. A Consumer Reports survey revealed that texting and talking on cell phones while driving was widespread and dangerous. But the survey also found increased driver awareness about the hazard and new bans in many regions. A December 2012 survey indicated that widespread media attention about the problem was having an effect: 71 percent of respondents said they had stopped or reduced that behavior in the past year. 

August 2012
A major mileage milestone.
 The federal government announced a landmark fuel-efficiency standard: 54.5 mpg by 2025. Armed with data from auto testing and consumer surveys, Consumer Reports was a vocal advocate for the new standard, which was also intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

July 2013
Tesla moves into the fast lane.
 An expensive electric luxury sports car (almost $90,000) from an American startup earned a near-perfect road-test score of 99. In 2015, the company’s model S P85D sedan ($127,820) became the best-performing vehicle we had ever tested.

October 2013
Making car-crash causes clearer.
 Like airplanes, cars now had black box data recorders, a promising tool in the battle to reduce highway fatalities. As of Sept. 1, 2012, NHTSA required black boxes in new cars to record the same type of data and standardize how it was retrieved. We supported that but were concerned about how the data might be used. We also said that older cars still on the road meant that it would take years before investigators could reap the full benefits.

March 2014
A victory for backup cameras.
 Although Congress mandated that new cars should have backup cameras in 2008, new rules were repeatedly delayed until we joined with other safety advocates in a lawsuit to force the Department of Transportation (DOT) to act. After years of being pressed for better visibility standards and to measure the blind zones behind cars and trucks to prevent drivers from accidentally backing up over children, the agency required backup cameras in all vehicles lighter than 10,000 pounds by 2018.

June 2014
Tougher tests for child safety seats.
 After more than two years of extensive research, we significantly improved our testing of car seats to better account for what happens when a child’s head hits the interior of a vehicle. The new dynamic crash test simulated conditions that were more realistic. We also upped the speed of our test crashes from 30 to 35 mph.

A photo of Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, at the Congressional hearing regarding the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandalSeptember 2015

The Volkswagen scandal heard round the world. The manufacturer was accused of—and admitted to—circumventing the emissions control system in about half a million diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. since 2008. The deception and subsequent scandal prompted worldwide outrage (millions of the vehicles were sold around the globe), much of which stemmed from VW’s advertising, which promoted its technology as “clean diesel.” In a tentative settlement of charges with the government, the company said it would set aside an estimated $10 billion to fix or buy back about 475,000 2.0-liter, four-cylinder TDI vehicles and would allow leaseholders of diesel cars to walk away from their contracts.

March 2016
A new-generation braking system.
 Consumer Reports was on hand as NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced that 20 automakers, representing 99 percent of the market, would make automatic emergency braking standard on almost all new cars by September 1, 2022. We pledged to monitor their compliance with this voluntary agreement. The system alerts drivers to take corrective action to avoid a crash, but lacking a fast-enough response, it may automatically apply the brakes to help prevent the crash or reduce its severity. In our new Overall Score for vehicles, we award bonus points to every car and truck equipped with this lifesaving technology.

June 2016
The Takata airbag tragedy.
 In a scandal dating back to 2014, we reported that vehicles made by 14 automakers had been recalled to replace frontal airbags. The airbags, made by Takata, could deploy explosively, injuring or killing occupants. The problem has resulted in 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries to date. The recall currently stands at more than 100 million vehicles worldwide.

July 2016
Safety concerns about self-driving cars.
 Despite earlier high marks, a series of crashes—including a fatal one—put Tesla under scrutiny for the way it aggressively deployed and marketed its Autopilot driving-assist system. We criticized Tesla for offering too much autonomy too soon and called on it to disable hands-free operations until the system was safer.

August 2016
A mileage mark for the Prius. 
Based on road tests, we crowned the redesigned 2016 Toyota hybrid the most efficient gas-powered car we’ve ever tested. Achieving an unheard of 52 mpg (combined city/highway), the car eclipsed the 44 mpg mark we recorded in our tests of its previous generation.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.