Detroit wakes up

The proof: 3 U.S. cars make our Top Picks

Published: March 11, 2015 06:00 AM

Photo: Paul Sahre

For the first time since the turn of the century, Consumer Reports has placed three vehicles from domestic automakers among its Top Picks: Buick Regal, Chevrolet Impala, and the Tesla Model S—our top-rated car.

What’s more, Consumer Reports’ overall road-test scores for Detroit models have leapt since 2012. Vehicles from General Motors are showing stronger reliability, are more fun to drive, and display technological advances that traditionally would first have appeared in import-brand cars. And some individual brands­—long seen as also-rans—are now near the top of the charts; witness Buick’s vaulting from the bottom of the pack past respected brands such as Honda and BMW in our brand report cards, which include reliability and road-test scores.

But it’s more than just what we’ve experienced in our testing. Results based on the 1.1 million vehicles in our Annual Auto Survey have indicated that GM and Ford are making slow improvements in vehicle reliability, meaning their cars are having fewer problems.

Mark Reuss, General Motors’ executive vice president of global product development, said that in the past, GM fell into the trap of designing cars to meet the current competition on the road rather than looking to leapfrog them.

“The last thing I want someone to say is, ‘We’re making a competitive truck,’ ” Reuss said. “We have to make a winning truck, or else we’re going to go out of business.”

Sign up for the free monthly Cars e-mail newsletter from Consumer Reports!

(Consumer Reports will not sell or rent your email address to third parties. See our Privacy Policy.)

Thank you. Your registration is complete!

Check your inbox for the most recent edition of the Cars e-mail newsletter.

Imports still have the lead

Although Detroit is attempting to close the gap on the import brands, GM and Ford still considerably trail leaders Toyota, Honda, Subaru, and Mazda in all key measurements. And though Ford’s latest vehicles have scored well, it has a string of legacy vehicles that we cannot recommend. In fact, among Ford’s broad product portfolio, only the Ford Flex and Fusion earn the right to be recommended by Consumer Reports. And sometimes the technological claims backfire, as seen in Ford’s black eye after having to revise its fuel-economy figures downward on several key vehicles. Clearly, there is still work to be done.

Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co.’s president for the Americas, acknowledges that Ford still has a ways to go. Although the ability to introduce a new, trouble-free model is better than before, he says, “what is not known is what happens in year two, three, and four.”

However, quite a few American cars are already topping our New-Car Value Ratings: The Buick Regal, Chevrolet Impala, and Chevrolet Traverse were first in their respective segments; the Lincoln MKZ, Buick Verano, and Dodge Durango came in second.

Some other brands slip lower

One sad exception to Detroit’s promise is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Technically now an Italian car company, FCA is still mired at the bottom of the heap in vehicle reliability. The Chrysler brand has never been strong in reliability and reached a new low in our 2014 survey. And though our road-test Ratings of FCA products have improved in the past two years, much of the competition continues to get better, too.

Although part of Detroit’s gains are due to actual improvements, American companies have also benefited from the fact that some foreign makers have slipped—notably Nissan and Mercedes-Benz—which have ongoing reliability challenges and decidedly mixed results in our tests.

John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Corp., says the Detroit brands have always had the ability but sometimes lacked the follow-through.

“Detroit began touring Japanese automaker plants openly two decades ago. You come to my kitchen and you watch me cook, but you can’t go back to your kitchen and cook the way I cook. They skip steps, and when you do that, you get what you get,” Mendel said.

The state of the art for automobiles is always in motion, and it is clear that the Detroit companies are becoming increasingly proficient at their craft. The automotive giants stared into the financial abyss just a few years ago, but now they have awakened, delivering better products than ever and challenging the perennially leading brands.

“For years the domestic automakers built lower-priced and lower-quality alternatives to the imports,” says Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports director of auto testing. “Those days are gone. Today’s domestic cars can go toe-to-toe with the best.”

Check out the Car Brand Report Cards to see where the leaders and laggards reside.

Autos Spotlight

Visit our Autos Spotlight special section to find all of our new and updated Annual Auto Issue articles, plus see the latest Best & worst new carsBest & worst used carsUsed car reliability, and New car Ratings & road tests.

From 2015: Top Picks, Car Brand Report CardDetroit Wakes Up, and Tips for Deciding If You Need a New Car.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Cars News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more