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The most improved cars for 2012

Joann Muller
May 2, 2012


For more than a decade, the Ford Focus was an also-ran among small cars, unable to keep up with far-superior compacts like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and even the Hyundai Elantra. Distracted by its success with trucks and SUVs, Ford Motor didn’t invest what was needed to keep passenger cars like the Focus in the game. Now, however, Ford has gotten serious about fixing the car side of its business, and the Focus, redesigned for 2012, is vastly improved.

How much better is it? The Focus went from middle of the pack to the segment leader, according to Total Car Score, a new online resource that aggregates car reviews from multiple sources. The 2012 model scored 80.68, tops among compact sedans and wagons, up from 72.73 for the 2011 model it replaced, according to Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Total Car Score. (The average score for 2012 compacts was 74.68.) The Focus’ leap from one model year to the next was the highest of any new vehicle, said Brauer, making it the most improved car of 2012.

The consensus among car critics is that the European-inspired Focus gets kudos for its sporty handling, supple and controlled ride and excellent steering feel along with a stylish interior that’s loaded with upscale amenities and advanced electronics. At 31 mpg combined city and highway driving, it’s also fairly fuel-efficient. But it’s not perfect: a quirky automatic transmission and cramped rear seat were common complaints. Still, sales of the Focus were up 12.5 percent in April, showing consumers like it too.

Auto reviewers, like movie critics, aren’t always unanimous in their points of view, however. A clever feature to one might be a pet peeve to another. Some reviewers put more weight on vehicle performance, while others emphasize safety or fuel economy or affordability. An overall consensus would be useful.

That’s exactly what Brauer is attempting with Total Car Score, which, he said, aims to be the Rotten Tomatoes of the auto industry. Rotten Tomatoes is a website that culls movie reviews from top film critics and assigns a “certified fresh” or “rotten” icon depending on the percentage of reviews that are positive. (More than 60% positive earns the fresh label.) It provides movie-goers with a quick overall opinion of a flick without having to research dozens of individual reviews. Likewise, Total Car Score wants to simplify the task of researching a car purchase.

“Nobody ever says I need more information about automobiles,” said Brauer, pointing to the vast amount of automotive content already available on the Web. “There are a bunch of good sites out there. I brought them all together.”

The problem is not all car reviews use the same scale. Some use a 1-10 scale while others use bubbles, circles or stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety uses words to describe its crash test results: good, acceptable, marginal or poor. No matter the format, Total Car Score takes the ratings from nine well-known automotive authorities including Consumer Reports, Edmunds.com, Consumer Guide and J.D. Power & Associates and converts them into a simple percentage representing what the car could have scored from each source versus what it did score. Then it merely averages the number from all of these sources to get a vehicle’s Total Car Score.

If it seems oversimplified, that’s the point. This is the lazy man’s way to research a car. The vehicle’s absolute score is less important than how it ranks relative to its peers in a particular segment. That at least gives you a starting point to build your shopping list.

What I like about Total Care Score is that it’s totally transparent. It’s not trying to steal anyone else’s content and it shows exactly how each car’s score was calculated. There’s also a “scoring report card” for each vehicle, a page with excerpts and links directly back to each review that factored into the scoring. At the bottom of each vehicle page are links to the related manufacturer website, owner’s manual, forums and road test pages for that vehicle.

It’s the closest thing to a one-stop shopping guide for automobiles.

2012 Ford Focus

Redesigned for 2012, the European-inspired Focus is praised for its sporty performance and premium electronics. Its total car score rose 7.95 points from 2011, the most of any vehicle. It's now the highest-ranked compact car.

2012 Hyundai Accent

The much-improved Accent's Total Car Score jumped 7.78 points over the previous generation. Still, that was only good enough to place it in the middle of the pack among economy cars.

2012 Toyota Camry

Already a good car, now the Camry is even better, with more fuel-efficient engines and more engaging driving characteristics in the 2012 model. One of the highest-ranked mid-sized sedans, the Camry earned a Total Car Score of 81.64, up 6.84 points.

2012 Camry Hybrid

Like gasoline-powered versions of the redesigned Camry, the Camry Hybrid has crisper styling and is roomier on the inside. The big change is in Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive System, which has been re-engineered to provide up to 30 percent better fuel economy. Reviewers like the seamless transition between hybrid and gasoline modes. Its Total Car Score was 85.59, up 6.77 points.

2012 Toyota Yaris
Panned by Consumer Reports for its rough handling and Spartan interior, the redesigned Yaris nonetheless is one of the most improved cars for 2012 by virtue of a 6.51-point jump in its Total Car Score, to 75.42. Overall, reviewers praised the Yaris' reliability and safety features.

2012 Kia Sportage

Among compact SUVs and crossovers, the redesigned Sportage is much improved, with its Total Car Score jumping 5.33 points to 79.45, well above average for the segment. The consensus among reviewers is that its turbocharged engine and sporty suspension in higher-trim levels are a great package, but the base engine is merely adequate.

2012 Cadillac SRX
The consensus among reviewers is that the new 3.6-liter V6 in this entry luxury crossover is vastly improved over the two smaller engines it replaces. They also liked its handsome styling, smooth ride and confident handling. At 83.01 (up 4.9 points), the Cadillac SRX had one of the best Total Car Scores in a very competitive segment.

2012 Honda CR-V

The best-selling compact crossover has a quieter cabin, smoother ride and lots of new standard features for 2012 including Pandora internet radio, Bluetooth and a rear-view camera. A nifty new seat-folding mechanism also drew praise from reviewers. The CR-V's Total Car Score is 81.56, up 4.85 points, and 10 points above the segment average.