Riding a wave of impressive redesigned models in the last few years, Subaru for the first time has earned the top score in our automaker report cards. Meanwhile, Honda, which had been the perennial winner for the past four years, slipped to fourth place among 13 major automakers, behind Mazda and Toyota.
Our automaker report cards reflect the performance, comfort, utility, and reliability of more than 275 vehicles that we've recently rated, providing a perspective on which manufacturers are building the best all-around models. Each automaker's overall score is based on the average road-test scores and reliability ratings for all of its models for which we have tests.
Subaru's score of 75, two points higher than last year, reflects better test scores for such redesigned models as the Impreza, Legacy, and Outback over the last few years. The 2012 Impreza, which we just tested, now tops the small-sedan class and is our Top Pick in that category. Subaru's average road-test score of 82 is the highest in our analysis. Moreover, all of Subaru's models now have at least average reliability, thanks to fewer problems with the sporty Impreza WRX.
By contrast, Honda has been hurt by several redesigned models—including the Civic and Odyssey—that didn't measure up to their predecessors. Honda's overall score dropped by two points and its average road-test score dropped one point. Honda models, however, are still among the most reliable on the road overall.
Here are other highlights from this year's analysis:
Though Japanese automakers still hold the top five spots in our ranking, their lead is shrinking. In some of Honda's and Toyota's recently redesigned models, cost-cutting has become more noticeable. Read Has auto quality peaked?
GM and Chrysler, on the other hand, are building nicer cars with each redesign. Still, their scores are dragged down by several older designs that either got low scores in our road tests, are unreliable, or both. As more new products are introduced, their fortunes could change if they can maintain good reliability.
New Chrysler models have gotten better across the board. And some, such as the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Dodge Durango, and Jeep Grand Cherokee, have become solid competitors in their classes. Overall, newer Chrysler models have nicely finished interiors, are refined, and have straightforward touch-screen controls. Chrysler's step up in reliability has been helped by average or better scores for the freshened Chrysler 200 and the redesigned Durango and Grand Cherokee in their first year. Now that Chrysler is owned by Fiat, we've also included the Fiat 500 in Chrysler's road-test score, but it's too new for us to have reliability data.
Last year, Ford made impressive gains based on above-average reliability and good performance. But the reliability of the new Fiesta and redesigned Explorer and Focus has been below average, which drags down Ford's overall score.
Volvo earned the best grade of any European automaker, thanks in part to a big improvement in the redesigned S60 sedan. Still, average reliability and less-than-stellar test scores kept it from making further progress.
Like Toyota and Honda, Volkswagen's redesigns of some of its best-selling models, including the Jetta and the Passat, dropped in our road-test scores. The Jetta once provided an upscale alternative to more common small cars, but its new interior is stingy and handling is lackluster, eroding that advantage. The Passat has evolved from a sportier midsized sedan to a larger, less sophisticated car. The change has brought mixed results. On the other hand, the redesigned Audi A6 and A8 posted big gains in our road tests.
Despite having frustrating controls, BMW and Mercedes-Benz models are nicely finished and well-mannered on the road, and they get high scores in our road tests. And though reliability has climbed to average for both carmakers, they were hurt by the reliability of some popular models. Mercedes' flagship S-Class sedan joined the company's large GL SUV with subpar reliability. The reliability of some turbocharged Mini Coopers and the 5 Series hurt BMW's grade.
Overall score is calculated from an automaker's average road-test and predicted-reliability scores. The average road-test score is based on vehicles we've recently tested. Scores are on a 100-point scale. The reliability rating is averaged over the tested vehicles from that automaker for which we have sufficient reliability data from our Annual Auto Survey. We show the percentage of recommended test vehicles for each automaker, but that does not contribute to the score. Highs and lows are common traits found on several of an automaker's models. We include automakers for which we have at least four models with test and reliability data.
Overall score: 75
Average road test score: 82
Reliability: Very good
Recommended test vehicles: 100%
Subaru builds dependable, all-wheel-drive vehicles with simple interiors. Most now get good fuel economy; some are sporty.
Highs: Ride, handling, controls, visibility, crash-test results, reliability
Lows: Engine noise, no-frills interiors
Overall score: 74
Average road test score: 76
Reliability: Very good
Recommended test vehicles: 64%
Among the most reliable cars in our survey this year, Mazdas are also fun to drive overall. But some tend to be stiff-riding and noisy.
Highs: Handling, steering, fuel economy, reliability
Lows: Road noise, ride, visibility
Overall score: 73
Average road test score: 76
Reliability: Very good
Recommended test vehicles: 84%
Reliability remains among the best and its hybrid systems are impressive. Most are comfortable and quiet but seldom sporty.
Highs: Powertrains, fuel economy, hybrid technology, ride, quietness, reliability
Lows: Steering feedback, some cheap-looking interiors
Overall score: 72
Average road-test score: 74
Reliability: Very good
Recommended test vehicles: 63%
Some newer models forsake Honda's reputation for great handling and well-finished interiors. Fuel economy is good but no longer stands out. Honda is one of the most reliable brands.
Highs: Powertrains, fuel economy, controls, reliability, crash-test results
Lows: Road noise, steering feedback, interior quality in some newer models
Overall score: 67
Average road-test score: 75
Recommended test vehicles: 65%
Nissan builds some of our highest-rated cars. But its truck-based SUVs drag down its score.
Highs: Powertrains, fuel economy, controls
Lows: Noise, visibility
Overall score: 64
Average road-test score: 73
Recommended test vehicles: 83%
Volvos are safe and solid, but the ride is overly stiff on some models. Refinement has improved, but reliability is just OK.
Highs: Safety features, crash-test results, interior quality, seats
Lows: Ride, visibility, so-so handling in older models
Overall score: 63
Average road-test score: 77
Recommended test vehicles: 70%
The latest Hyundai and Kia designs are impressive with often class-leading fuel economy. Refinement has been improving.
Highs: Fuel economy, transmissions, controls, features for price
Lows: Noise, ride, steering feedback
Overall score: 63
Average road-test score: 76
Recommended test vehicles: 58%
BMWs are traditionally sporty to drive with nicely finished interiors. Lately they've become less fun but more fuel-efficient.
Highs: Powertrains, fuel economy, ride, handling, interior quality, seats
Lows: Confusing controls, less sporty handling in newer models, reliability of some models
Overall score: 62
Average road-test score: 79
Recommended test vehicles: 41%
New models are roomy but don't handle as well as previous ones. Audis are very well-finished, VWs less so. Uneven reliability holds them back.
Highs: Diesel fuel economy, spacious interiors, crash-test results, Audi interior finish and seats
Lows: Spotty reliability, Audi controls
Overall score: 60
Average road-test score: 72
Recommended test vehicles: 54%
Most handle and perform well. But poorly designed and unreliable electronic interfaces and transmissions plague many new models.
Highs: Handling, ride, crash-test results, EcoBoost fuel economy and acceleration
Lows: MyFord Touch interface, spotty reliability
Overall score: 58
Average road-test score: 73
Recommended test vehicles: 33%
Most have excellent ride and handling and plush interiors but frustrating controls.
Highs: Quietness, interior quality, ride, seats, crash-test results
Lows: Confusing controls, spotty reliability
Overall score: 56
Average road-test score: 70
Recommended test vehicles: 36%
Newer models perform well in our tests, but some were unreliable.
Highs: Ride, quietness, controls, interior quality
Lows: Fuel economy, visibility, unrefined older models
Overall score: 51
Average road-test score: 58
Recommended test vehicles: 26%
Newer redesigned models drive nicely. Chrysler's score is likely to improve as it rebuilds its lineup.
Highs: Interior room, controls, ride and quietness in newer models
Lows: Visibility, interior quality, agility and refinement in older models
Jaguar, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Porsche, and Suzuki are once again absent from our automaker report cards.
To give an overall score, we must have road-test data and sufficient reliability data from subscribers on at least four models. Without that, carmakers with few models could yo-yo in our ranking, depending on the models for which we receive adequate reliability data for a given year.
We've mostly enjoyed the performance and interiors of the three Jaguars and four Land Rovers we've tested. But of the seven, we received reliability data on only the two Jaguar sedans—and they were the worst in our Predicted Reliability Ratings.
Of the Mitsubishis we've tested, we have reliability data only on the Outlander, which was above average. Other than the Lancer Evolution, the rest were not high performers.
The Porsches we've tested have performed very well, but the only model with sufficient reliability data is the Cayenne, which is well below average.
In recent years, we've seen a number of revamped models score notably lower in our overall test scores than their predecessors. Just in the last year, such models included the Honda Civic and Odyssey, Nissan Versa, Toyota Sienna, and Volkswagen Jetta and Passat. (Read Hits and misses in redesigns for more details.)
Have the best vehicles peaked in quality and is there now nowhere to go but down? Fortunately, our test and reliability data show that's generally not the case. But we are seeing some worrisome slip-sliding among what have traditionally been top automakers.
Cost-cutting is taking a toll. When we looked at the 82 vehicles we've tested that received major redesigns or extensive freshenings between the 2009 and 2012 model years, 34 showed significant improvement, scoring five or more points higher than the model they replaced. But a notable 14 of them dropped in score by five or more points.
Of the models that improved, Chrysler accounted for the most—seven—followed by Subaru and Toyota (five), GM (four), and Hyundai/Kia (three). With Chrysler models, we're now seeing improved ride and handling, and notably better fit and finish. Three of our Top Picks—the Hyundai Sonata, Subaru Impreza, and Toyota Camry Hybrid—are also among those that improved.
Among the 14 vehicles that dropped, four are built by Honda and four by Toyota, two automakers that have often been at the top of our test ratings. Volkswagen builds three. "In a number of vehicles, we've seen a real drop in interior quality," notes Consumer Reports' auto-test director, David Champion, "including cheaper trim and upholstery, notable gaps and rough edges, and a general lack of refinement and noise isolation." Ironically, those are the types of complaints we used to have about many American vehicles.
What's going on? The difference is in what it costs to build the cars, says David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., who has consulted with the auto industry for 45 years. He says Japanese automakers used to be able to build an equivalent car for about $4,000 less than Detroit companies. Now the equation has flipped. After GM's and Chrysler's bankruptcies in 2009, they reduced their costs. At the same time, exchange rates reversed dramatically, from 120 yen to the dollar in 2007 to just over 75 today. "When you have a cost disadvantage, you have to take cost out," Cole says. "And at the same time you often take value out."
Problem rates hold steady. Another way to view quality is in a model's reliability, or the number of problems it has had. Our reliability information shows small but relatively steady drops in problem rates from year to year up until the last few years. Since then, problem rates have hit a plateau; differences still exist among models and automakers, but overall industry rates haven't significantly increased or decreased.
What is different is that we're seeing fewer mechanical troubles and more problems with electronics systems. In-car electronics have proliferated in recent years, with ever more sophisticated navigation, infotainment, and telematics systems. Meanwhile, in new cars built in 2011, the number of electronic problems has increased 50 percent compared with those in 2007.
The poster child for electronic problems has been Ford's MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems. In our Annual Auto Survey, 11 to 14 percent of owners of new 2011 Ford Edges and Lincoln MKXs had problems with the communication systems; 4 to 7 percent had navigation hiccups.
"Many in-car electronics are made by companies that are used to building consumer electronics," Champion says, "which typically aren't subjected to the physical shocks and wide temperature variation of the automotive environment."
Cole notes that because electronic systems are updated more frequently than mechanical ones, it's hard for automakers to accurately assess how components will age.
Bottom line. Overall, cars are continuing to get better, but the automakers' economic pressures and the infusion of complicated electronics are making it all the more important to check our Ratings and do your homework when buying a new car.