Last year, Consumer Reports made news with its annual rankings of new cars and trucks by choosing foreign-branded vehicles for all of its top picks, upsetting some Detroit fans. This year, Consumer Reports changed course dramatically, naming an American built and designed car the best overall vehicle for sale today, an honor it hasn't used in four years.
But it's not made in Detroit.
The Tesla Model S took top honors based on the magazine's own testing and reliability surveys drawn from its 8 million readers. Foreign brands once again dominate the brand rankings and individual top picks, with Lexus, Acura and Audi in the lead. And while there were a few bright spots for the traditional domestic makers — with the Ram full-size pickup scoring Chrysler's first top pick in 16 years — they still trail the competition due to reliability scores.
While reliability for the $90,000 Tesla has been average in Consumer Reports' surveys, the all-electric luxury sedan scored a 99 out of 100 in its driving tests, with the magazine calling it "a glimpse into a future where cars and computers coexist in seamless harmony." The last car to win the accolade was the Lexus LS 460L in 2010. Among the other nine top picks, Honda and Subaru claimed two apiece, with Toyota, Audi, Ram, BMW and Hyundai taking the rest.
Consumer Reports automotive editor Rik Paul said the brand rankings often reflect how well an automaker has designed its electronic systems. Lexus, Acura and Audi "all have full-featured cars, and they are reliable systems that don’t have a lot of problems," Paul said. Subaru, Toyota, Honda and Mazda followed close behind.
[See Consumer Reports' Top Picks for 2014 here]
Among Detroit brands, Buick and GMC posted the highest scores, with General Motors as a whole generally performing better than Ford or Chrysler, whose Jeep brand scored lowest among those ranked. Paul said while many individual Detroit models performed well — the Cadillac CTS, the new Chevy Silverado pickup — the magazine either lacked reliability data or the reports it had were discouraging.
For example, the Ford Fusion was one of the magazine's top-scoring family sedans, and Paul said Ford vehicles on average "outscore Toyota in our testing and are similar to Honda. But what drags Ford down is reliability ratings," especially with its MyFordTouch in-dash entertainment system.
The survey does have a few blind spots. Several brands — Fiat, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mini, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Ram, Scion and Smart — weren't ranked because Consumer Reports didn't have enough data to measure their reliability, although the magazine does rate their individual models. Automakers have long said no single ranking has more sway with customers than Consumer Reports, but Jeep's status as the lowest-performing brand for a few years running hasn't hurt its sales, with the Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and new Cherokee all moving off dealer lots swiftly. Given that Tesla is selling every car it can build, the magazine's honor can't increase sales much, but it certainly won't hurt.