It’s that time of year again! The annual auto issue of Consumer Reports landed in my mailbox yesterday, and I spent some time browsing its pages. I’m not nearly as interested in car info as I used to be; I’ve had my beloved Mini Cooper for two years now, and am quite pleased with it. Still, I know that many folks are in the market for a new car, and I think Consumer Reports is a great source for info. Plus, it’s fun to review their findings to see what (if anything) has changed.

Note: You can read my summaries of past Consumer Reports auto issues here: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010.

This year, the Consumer Reports website — even the part that’s not behind a paywall — has more useful information than in past years. In fact, there are video reports on each of the magazine’s top cars, plus other video content scattered around the auto section. Nice! Here, for instance, is their preview of the upcoming Nissan Leaf:

You can access all of the free, public content from the site’s April 2011 issue homepage. But let’s review some of the major news.

Here are the Consumer Reports top-rated vehicles in ten categories (with previous years’ top cars in parentheses). Note that I’ve linked each category to its corresponding page at the CR website, where you can watch informative video profiles of each top vehicle.

  • Budget car: Honda Fit (new category, replacing Luxury Sedan — a sign of the times?)
  • Family hauler (formerly Minivan): Toyota Sienna (2010: Mazda5, 2007-2009: Toyota Sienna)
  • Family sedan: Nissan Altima (2010: Nissan Altima, 2007-2009: Honda Accord)
  • Family SUV (formerly Midsized SUV): Kia Sorento (2010: Chevrolet Traverse, 2009: Toyota Highlander, 2008: Hyundai Santa Fe, 2007: Toyota Highlander Hybrid)
  • Green car: Toyota Prius (2007-2010: Toyota Prius)
  • Pickup Truck: Chevrolet Avalanche (2010: Chevrolet Silverado 1500, 2009: Chevrolet Avalanche, 2008: Chevrolet Silverado 1500, no pick in 2007)
  • Small car (formerly Small sedan): Hyundai Elantra (2008-2010: Hyundai Elantra SE, 2007: Honda Civic)
  • Small SUV: Toyota RAV4 (2010: Subaru Forester, 2007-2009: Toyota RAV4)
  • Sports sedan (formerly Upscale sedan): Infiniti G37 (2009-2010: Infiniti G37, 2007-2008: Infiniti G35)
  • Sporty Car (formerly Fun-to-drive): Ford Mustang (2010: Volkswagen GTI, 2007-2009: Mazda MX-5 Miata)

In previous years, Consumer Reports selected a “best car overall”, which was usually the luxury Lexus LS 460L. With 99 out of a possible 100 points in the magazine’s road test, the LS 460L is still a fine vehicle — but because they no longer pick a top car or a top luxury car, it didn’t make any particular list. (By comparison, the Mini Cooper still scores an 81 on the road test.)

I was sad to see the “most overlooked cars” list didn’t re-appear this year. In the past, it’s shown which cars are safe and received good road scores, but don’t sell well too the public. As usual, though, there are plenty of other lists.

For example, here are the least expensive cars over five years (based on total owner cost):

  • Honda Fit (base) — $26,250
  • Smart ForTwo — $27,000
  • Toyota Yaris sedan — $27,250
  • Scion xD — $27,750
  • Toyota Corolla LE — $28,000

The most expensive car to own? A Mercedes-Benz SL550, which costs an average of $112,250 over five years. Yikes! No wonder there’s a small group of GRS readers who have chosen to go car-free. Even the cheapest car — the Honda Fit — costs an average of $444 per month during the first five years of ownership. You could save a heck of a lot if you didn’t have that cost. (And most families have more than one car!)

Note: Of course, one way to keep the cost of ownership down is to keep your car a long time. Drive it into the ground. Also, buy used. The Consumer Reports car buying issue has some great info to help those in the market for a used vehicle. Unfortunately, this info is behind the website’s paywall this year.

CR says that Honda makes the best cars overall, taking the top spot from Toyota (which falls to number three). Subaru is second best. The worst cars (by a long shot) come from Chrysler, though Consumer Reports sees glimmers of hope for them on the horizon. Ford has made great improvements over the past couple of years.

As I mentioned, some of the material from the Consumer Reports 2011 Auto Issue is freely available on their website. Other information, however, is locked behind a paywall. And don’t forget that you can always find great info on the Consumer Reports car blog.

Note: Yesterday at the grocery store, I noticed that the 2011 Consumer Reports car buying guide is out, too. That provides even more in-depth info than the magazine’s annual auto issue. If I were shopping for a car, I’d pick up both.

From the archives
Don’t forget that Get Rich Slowly features car-buying tips from time-to-time. Notable articles include:

I also recommend two older AskMetafilter threads:

The Consumer Reports car issue is an excellent resource. If you think you might purchase a vehicle soon, I recommend it. But I think it’s a little dangerous to pick up just for the sake of browsing. You may find yourself moved from merely curious to “itching to buy”!