5 low-scoring Japanese cars

Disappointing models that fail to earn our recommendation

Published: October 18, 2013 03:30 PM

There’s a hard-earned perception that, in general, Japanese cars excel at consumer-focused virtues. If you look at our annual Brand Report Cards, you’ll find several Japanese brands top the list due to high average test scores and predicted reliability. But there have been several disappointing Japanese models lately.

These five cars score too low in our battery of more than 50 tests to qualify for a coveted Consumer Reports recommendation. In each case, they fell short of their potential and face much better competitors.

To earn a recommendation, a car must perform well in our tests, have average or better reliability, and perform adequately if included in a government or insurance industry crash test. While the spotlighted five cars missed the mark on the first criterion, the suggested alternatives all meet the standards to be Consumer Reports recommended. (Overall test scores are based on a 0-100 scale.)

Acura RLX - 74
The 74-point score may seem respectable at a glance, but being a luxury car, the RLX is held to a high standard. To be fair, the new RLX flagship has some good points, but it falls well short of its luxury competitors, mostly in ride and handling. While it is powerful, spacious, and comfortable, it also has ungainly handling, lifeless steering, extremely expensive options packages, and a choppy, unsettled ride. Not a bad car, per se, but the RLX is a disappointing one considering the heady competition. If it was priced in Toyota Avalon territory, the RLX might be worth considering. But with a sticker price over $55,000, it is simply out of its league, and makes a good case for a $30,000 Honda Accord V6.

Alternatives: Hyundai's upscale Genesis sedan is impressive for the price, delivering virtually everything a $50,000 sedan does, but for $10,000 less. For an even better deal, the smart money is on a well-dressed mainstream car. For example, the high-scoring Chevrolet Impala delivers all the luxuries and a much-better ride, for at least $15,000 less.

Honda Crosstour – 62 points
An Accord-based crossover, the Crosstour promises the comfort of a sedan, flexibility of an SUV, and the cargo space of a wagon. Unfortunately, this platypus car accomplishes none of those goals. We like the high seating position, the spacious cabin with its comfortable seats, and the smooth powertrain. But the styling impedes the view to the rear and hurts cargo space. Handling is clumsy, the turning circle is wide, and the update controls are convoluted. It is a classic case of combining elements that seem desirable on paper, but simply don’t work in the real world. Other unsuccessful applications of this formula include the Acura ZDX and Pontiac Aztek.

Alternative: The pioneering Subaru Outback succeeds at the same goals, with a much lower base price and better fuel economy.

Nissan Sentra – 64 points
The Nissan Sentra compact looks good at first glance, but it doesn't measure up to the best in this class. And that’s before factoring in the latest, as-yet-untested competitors from Mazda and Toyota. The Sentra is held back by uncomfortable front seats, stiff ride, rubbery handling, and relentlessly noisy, underwhelming powertrain. The Sentra does have a roomy backseat and delivers generous features for the price, but these notable benefits can’t overshadow the disappointing overall package.

Alternative: Shoppers looking for an affordable, well-equipped small car with abundant features will find that the Hyundai Elantra is a natural. With great fuel economy and multiple body styles, the Elantra has broad appeal.

Nissan Versa sedan – 53 points
Earning a true failing grade, the Nissan Versa sedan disappoints with a noisy, cheap interior, droning engine, jumpy ride, and lack of agility. Sure, it has a relatively roomy backseat and commendable fuel economy at 32 mpg overall, but the Versa can’t match the polish of even older models. The rudimentary interior—with its flimsy controls, thin upholstery, cardboardlike headliner, exposed screw heads, and cheap carpets—clearly reflects the Versa's budget price. Oddly, the trunk, with a lined lid and thick mat, seems better finished than the cabin. To make matters worse, its predicted reliability is well below average.

Alternative: Another budget-priced small sedan, the Chevrolet Sonic is a better-scoring alternative to the Versa with good crash-test performance and a surprisingly complete roster of available advanced safety features, such as forward collision alert and lane-departure warning.

Toyota Yaris – 41 points
Offered as a two- or four-door hatchback, Toyota’s least-expensive car feels like a sacrifice, rather than a model to aspire toward. This Spartan subcompact serves as merely basic transportation, while most competitors offer a more satisfying base model. Slow acceleration, ho-hum handling, noisy cabin, busy ride, and awkward driving position should be enough to make shoppers look elsewhere. Sure, the 32 mpg overall may seem compelling, but there are larger, better cars that can accomplish that feat without the compromises that may lead to buyer’s remorse.

Alternative: The Hyundai Accent outscores and outshines the Yaris, with a stylish exterior, comfortable cabin, secure handling, and terrific highway fuel economy.

Sure, there are many virtuous Japanese cars, but not all models live up to the perceived standard. As with all cars, it is best to do your research, rather than draw on anecdotal insights. There are many great cars, trucks, and SUVs on the market today that are safe, reliable, and rewarding. There is no sense driving past those choices to choose a subpar performer, unless it truly delivers something special.

To find a great car for any budget, check out our new-car full ratings.

Jeff Bartlett

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