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Think twice before buying a car by brand--American automakers are closing the gap

Consumer Reports News: April 03, 2012 12:08 PM

You would assume that if an automaker poured millions of dollars into a major redesign of one of its models that the new version would be better than the old one. But more and more, that’s not the case. In fact, a lot of the slip-sliding we’re seeing here at Consumer Reports has been coming from some traditionally high-performing brands, including Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen. (See our automaker report cards.)

On the other hand, the redesigned models built by American brands are steadily improving. Those two trends are gradually changing the automotive landscape and creating a more competitive market, one in which it’s all the more important to judge each model individually rather than simply buying by brand.

In purchasing and testing about 80 vehicles each year, and maintaining ratings for more than 270, we get a first-hand look at the strengths and weaknesses of the latest releases. For every car we test, we assign it an overall road-test score, which is based on more than 50 individual tests and evaluations, including performance, handling, fuel economy, comfort, convenience, interior quality, cargo space, and more. As a result, our scores reflect how well a vehicle measures up as an overall package.

Among 11 redesigned vehicles that dropped the most in our road-test scores in recent years, four are Hondas, including three versions of the Honda Civic and the Honda Odyssey minivan. Three are Toyotas, including two versions of the Sienna minivan and the 4Runner SUV. There are also two versions of the VW Jetta on this list. The reasons vary, but cost cutting seems to be factor. In several models, we’ve seen interior quality ebb, reflected by cheaper trim and upholstery material and a general lack of refinement and noise isolation. We’ve also seen poorer handling performance and ride comfort in some models.

Ironically, those are the types of things we used to complain about with American cars.
Meanwhile, the American brands are making tremendous strides in those areas. True, they’re often starting from a lower point of comparison, but the improvement reflects a noteworthy direction for the companies. Among the 10 redesigned vehicles that showed the most improvement in our road-test scores, GM and Chrysler account for four and three, respectively. We called the Chrysler 300C luxury sedan, which jumped 16 points in its score and now edges out the Mercedes-Benz E350, the best Chrysler in decades. And GM’s new Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic small cars are welcome replacements for what used to be notorious weak spots in the company’s lineup.

Of course, all is not black and white in autoland. Toyota did come through with a strong redesign of the Camry, for example. And its SUVs and hybrids are among the best on the market. Chrysler and GM still struggle with some older models. And, overall, there are still more Asian models near the top of our ratings than American ones.

In addition, Honda and Toyota still produce some of the most reliable cars on the road, while Chrysler, Ford, and GM have struggled with inconsistent reliability. A problematic vehicle not only results in the extra cost and hassle of repairs, but can have a lower resale value, as well.

Still, the message is clear. More than ever, buying by brand is an iffy way to make such a high-dollar purchase decision. Each model needs to be assessed on its own terms, not by the track record of its predecessors. And with car buyers now keeping their vehicles longer, the impulsive shopper may have a lot of time to deal with buyer remorse.

By David Champion, Deputy Technical Director, Consumer Reports Auto Test Center
and Rik Paul, Automotive Editor, Consumer Reports

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