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In recent years, Ford has been a model of American reliability. The brand ranked 10th in our predicted-reliability ranking last year and competed well with Japanese makes. This year, however, the Ford brand has slipped 10 spots, to 20th out of 28 makes. That was the biggest drop for any major nameplate, according to Consumer Reports' 2011 Annual Auto Survey, which is based on subscribers' experiences with 1.3 million vehicles.
What changed? Three new or redesigned models — the Explorer, Fiesta, and Focus — had below-average reliability in their first year. We have often found that new or revamped models have more problems in their first year than in subsequent model years. Ford's problems underscore our advice to hold off buying a new car in its first year.
Other highlights from the survey:
• As Ford's star has fallen, Chrysler's has risen. Jeep has moved up seven spots to become the most reliable domestic brand, and all its models for which we have sufficient data scored average in predicted reliability. Chrysler and Dodge moved up 12 and three spots in ranking, respectively.
• Japanese brands dominate our survey's upper echelons and took the top nine spots. They were led by Scion, Lexus, Acura, Mazda, Honda, and Toyota.
• Jaguar, Porsche, and Audi are at the bottom among brands for which we have sufficient data.
• Many hybrids are proving extremely reliable. The top two models in our survey are the Lexus CT 200h and Honda CR-Z. The Toyota Prius was among the top models, rebounding from brake problems that plagued the current design.
• Family sedans hold up well overall and are led by the Ford Fusion Hybrid. All of the models for which we have data have at least average reliability. In contrast, only one minivan makes that cut: The front-wheel-drive Toyota Sienna is average.
• Heavy-duty, three-quarter-ton pickups are among the most problematic vehicles. With the exception of the turbodiesel Ford F-250, they all scored below average.
For full reliability charts and predicted reliability on hundreds of 2012 models, plus a list of what's up and what's down, visit ConsumerReports.org.
Fortunes change for Big Three
Even with Chrysler's improvement, Detroit models still have reliability problems. Of the 97 domestic models and versions for which we have sufficient data, 62 (64 percent) rated average or better in our new-car reliability ratings.
General Motors has stumbled after edging up last year. The Buick and Cadillac brands, in particular, appear to have taken a step backward; Chevrolet held steady and GMC dropped one spot.
The new Buick Regal and Chevrolet Cruze did well in our road tests but were below par in reliability. The Buick LaCrosse, an all-wheel-drive version of the Buick Enclave, and the Cadillac SRX were all deemed reliable last year but dropped to below average and are no longer recommended. General Motors' bright spots include the above-average Chevrolet Avalanche and the Cadillac CTS, which has improved to average.
The gas/electric Chevrolet Volt, with much better than average predicted reliability, ranks as GM's most reliable car but with a caveat: The sample size was just a little more than our minimum threshold of 100 cars, and most respondents had owned theirs for only a few months.
Ford's drop can also be attributed to problems with new technologies: the new MyFord Touch infotainment system and the new automated-manual transmission used in the Fiesta and Focus. Lincoln finished above Ford, although the freshened MKX, a cousin of the Edge, suffered from the MyLincoln Touch system. On the bright side, the Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan remained outstanding, and other Fusion versions were above average.
Chrysler had better results with its new models, including the freshened Chrysler 200 (formerly Sebring) sedan and the redesigned Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. The Chrysler brand moved up in the survey, but its rank is based on just two models: the 200, which was well above average, and the freshened Town & Country minivan, which tanked. The remaining model, the 300, is too new for us to have sufficient data.
Asian brands roll on
f the 91 Japanese models for which we have sufficient data, 87 (96 percent) were rated average or better in predicted reliability; 24 Japanese models earned the highest rating.
Six brands weighed in at average or above with all their models: Scion, Lexus, Acura, Mazda, Infiniti, and Subaru. The biggest improvement was from Mazda, which moved up eight spots from last year. All its models were rated above average.
Scion remains the top brand in our survey, but only two models of its three, the xB and xD, had sufficient data to be included. Lexus, with 11 models included, rebounded seven places from last year.
Toyota finished sixth overall, the same as last year, and every Toyota model except the all-wheel-drive version of the Sienna minivan was average or better. Honda also had just one below-average vehicle, the redesigned Odyssey minivan.
The South Korean brands rank 11th and 12th in our survey. Hyundai had just one below-par entry, the V-6 Santa Fe. The V-6 version of its corporate cousin, the Kia Sorento, also finished off the pace.
Mixed results from Europe
European models continue to be a blend of reliable and not so reliable vehicles. Overall, European vehicles' reliability is slightly below that of domestic models. Of the 58 European models for which we have sufficient data, 37 (64 percent) scored average or better in predicted reliability.
Among European brands, Volvo ranked the highest at 10th overall. It was helped by the redesigned S60, which was above average in its first year.
Volkswagen was able to hold on to 16th place in the ranking; seven of its 11 models scored average or better.
Mercedes-Benz and BMW improved, but results were inconsistent for their various models. BMW's redesigned X3 SUV did well, for example, but the redesigned 5 Series sedan was well below average. Mercedes' compact GLK SUV improved, but its flagship S-Class luxury sedan fell to below average.
Porsche dropped from being the second-best brand last year to the second-worst. That big shift occurred because we have data for only two models, one of which, the redesigned Cayenne SUV, had a terrible debut year.
Jaguar trails the pack. Its XF and the new XJ were the two least reliable new cars in the survey, but that's not surprising, given Jaguar's history of producing less than reliable models.