If it’s March, it must be time to talk about cars. The annual auto issue of Consumer Reports landed in my mailbox this week, and I spent some time skimming the pages.

I’m not nearly as interested in car info as I used to be, but 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, 2011.

This year, the Consumer Reports website — even the part that’s not behind a paywall — has plenty of useful info. There are video reviews of top cars again in 2012, although external embedding has been disabled (meaning I can’t share a video with you here — you have to go to the CR website to see them yourself). You can access all of the free, public content from the site’s April 2012 issue homepage. But let’s review some of the major news.

Note: Because I continue to love my 2004 Mini Cooper (which I bought used), I’ll throw in random Mini stats throughout this article, as I do every year. Humor me.

Here are the Consumer Reports top-rated vehicles in ten categories (with previous years’ top cars in parentheses).

  • Affordable family sedan (formerly budget car): Hyundai Sonata (2011: Honda Fit)
  • Family hauler: Toyota Sienna V6 (2011: Toyota Sienna, 2010: Mazda5, 2007-2009: Toyota Sienna)
  • Family sedan: Toyota Camry Hybrid (2010-2011: Nissan Altima, 2007-2009: Honda Accord)
  • Family SUV: Toyota Highlander (2011: Kia Sorento, 2010: Chevrolet Traverse, 2009: Toyota Highlander, 2008: Hyundai Santa Fe, 2007: Toyota Highlander Hybrid)
  • Green car: Toyota Prius (2007-2011: Toyota Prius)
  • Pickup Truck: Chevrolet Avalanche (2011: Chevrolet Avalanche, 2010: Chevrolet Silverado 1500, 2009: Chevrolet Avalanche, 2008: Chevrolet Silverado 1500)
  • Small car: Subaru Impreza (2011: Hyundai Elantra, 2008-2010: Hyundai Elantra SE, 2007: Honda Civic)
  • Small SUV: Toyota RAV4 (2011: Toyota RAV4, 2010: Subaru Forester, 2007-2009: Toyota RAV4)
  • Sports sedan: Infiniti G (2009-2011: Infiniti G37, 2007-2008: Infiniti G35)
  • Sporty Car: Ford Mustang (2011: Ford Mustang, 2010: Volkswagen GTI, 2007-2009: Mazda MX-5 Miata)

The magazine no longer picks a “best car overall”, but if it did, that honor would probably go once again to the Lexus LS 460L, which used to claim the top spot every year, and which continues to have the top road score for all vehicles (with 99 our of 100 possible points). (As in previous years, the Mini Cooper scored an 81 on the road test for 2012.)

To me, the big shocker was the rating of top automakers. For years, Honda has ruled the roost in the Consumer Reports‘ annual round-up. Not this year. This year, Honda fell to fourth place. Who’s number one? Subaru. (Although, to be fair, Subaru, Mazda, Toyota, and Honda are all bunched close together at the top of the chart.) Lowly Chrysler brings up the rear.

This year, there’s a clear winner in fuel economy. The Nissan Leaf gets an astounding 106 miles per gallon. (In reality, as a couple of readers have noted, as an electric car, the Leaf doesn’t actually use any gasoline.) The Chevrolet Volt gets 61 mpg to take second place. Then there are a bunch of hybrids at about 38-44 mpg. Consumer Reports says that the Mini Cooper gets 30 mpg, and that’s exactly what mine has averaged over the past six months (and it’s eight years old!). The worst fuel economy? There’s a four-way tie at 13 mpg: Cadillac Escalade, Dodge Ram 2500 (diesel), Ford Expedition EL, and Lincoln Navigator.

In addition to ratings of 276 vehicles, the 2012 auto issue also includes a round-up of top tires, info on individual model reliability, a summary of safety statistics, and a guide to buying used cars.

For a second year, the magazine has done away with some useful info for finding inexpensive gems. I miss the “most overlooked cars” list, for instance. I’m not sure there’s much use to the “top driving gripes” and the “features we love and loathe” lists that take up and entire page. This is USA Today level fluff; I’d rather see some sort of useful data.

Some of the material from the Consumer Reports 2012 Auto Issue is freely available on their website. For instance, check out these useful pages about used cars:

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.

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”!

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