Consumer reports auto issue: Best and worst cars

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.

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:

  • The best used vehicles for under $20,000
  • Best used cars for fuel economy

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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david
david
8 years ago

I think it is super important to read the reports on whether a care is reliable or not – how often it breaks down compared to other similar makes and models. You can save yourself a lot of hassle and a lot of expense this way. Most of us spend a lot of time in our cars and we rely upon them. Problems can make us late for work – or worse, we might not get there. We need good cars and reading consumer reports can really help us avoid disasters and save money on long term expenses by avoiding… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  david

When I bought my first car, my father warned me that you can “pay now, or pay later” In other words, you can pay a higher purchase price for a more reliable vehicle or buy a less expensive, lower quality care and end up paying the same in maintenance down the road.

In other words: you have to consider total cost of ownership, not just the price tag on a new or used vehicle. I found Consumer Reports was a good source to consult.

I Am 1 Percent
I Am 1 Percent
8 years ago

Hyundai has really made a comeback and makes really nice looking cars. Too bad they have baggage from the poorer quality cars they put out years ago…it will be an uphill battle for them.

Me
Me
8 years ago

I stopped relying on Consumer Report’s reviews on autos when I purchased in 2004 their well reviewed Hyundai Elantra. It was a POS. We sold it in 2010 (fully paid off) after putting in 1k of car repairs, and purchased a brand new Dodge Grand Caravan. We paid for most of it in cash, and took out a tiny loan to pay for it. When I put together all we would pay in interest was $275, I realized that was easily a future repair for that POS Hyundai. I see in this particular issue Toyota must have paid well in… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Me

Many major car manufacturers have had major recalls in the past few years — for some reason, the U.S. government made an example of Toyota. I’m not surprised Toyota still made the list — unless you follow information about recalls, you miss a lot of stuff about other manufacturers.

Case in point: my relatives’ Dodge Caravan had more than 14 recalls, including issues with seat belts, seats not staying hooked in, electrical problems, etc. Not a single one of those recalls ever made the news despite the fact some of them were safety issues.

Audrey
Audrey
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Don’t forget all the exploding Fords! My former coworker parked next to a Ford that had been purchased at a CarMax. Something had been recalled, CarMax didn’t take care of it, didn’t tell the customer, and the customer never knew. Luckily it exploaded/caught fire when no one was in it, but it did take out the cars parked on either side (also vacant).

MC
MC
8 years ago

Still driving my 2003 Mazda Protege 5…

A couple of things that I don’t like about it. No cabin air filter and that it’s prone to rust in certain areas… as I see on mine and many others driving around. Otherwise has been a reliable car… I can probably get another 5 years out of but then there’s that rust problem.

Marianne
Marianne
8 years ago
Reply to  MC

We have a rust problem as well. My husband recently filled up the entire underside of the car with oil to help slow it down a bit. These cars are also prone to seized brake calipers though since my husband replaced each one himself (as they seized) he took extra care to make sure they were well lubricated where they need to be and he’s only had to replace each one once. Also, we’ve had problems with our EGR valve getting clogged. For some time we were do regular sea foam flushes though now that we are running Amsoil products… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

Hurrah, the, Chevy Avalanche wins again! Of course mine is 10 years old ha ha ha. But seriously, if/when I update it will very likely be another Avalanche. I love that truck.

A note about the CR paywall: their online subscription was just $5/month last I tried it (couple of years ago maybe). So if you have a big purchase to make, it might be worth it to drop $5 for the info you need that month– no need to have a permanent subscription.

FACT CHECK FOR JD: THE “RELIABLE USED CARS” ARTICLE ACTUALLY NEEDS SUBSCRIPTION

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Blarg. Thanks, Nerdo. I had forgotten to logout of the site to be sure that link was available to non-subscribers. Fixed.

Adam P
Adam P
8 years ago

I had a good chuckle on the Dave Ramsey article about “Drive Free Retire Rich” with its use of a 12% guaranteed rate of return.

It reads like one of those old timey ads from the 1800s or something. Oh for the roaring 90s again.

Using a modern 4% rate of return (still a stretch if you’re conservative) and 2-3% inflation + taxes on investment returns, the math just doesn’t quite work tho.

YoungMonopoly
YoungMonopoly
8 years ago
Reply to  Adam P

I believe the S&P500 has returned about 11% average over the last 75 years, and some mutual funds (although riskier) have done even better than that.

Why do you think 4% is a stretch knowing that?

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  YoungMonopoly

The average rate of return since 2000 has been approximately 4.5%, but around half of that figure is accounted for by dividends. If you are talking about non-dividend-returning investments, it’s about 2% over the same time period.

Returns from 75 years ago (or 50, or even 20) are irrelevant when discussing investing as it relates to auto purchasing.

YoungMonopoly
YoungMonopoly
8 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

What is irrelevant, is the last 10 years of the stock market. “The great recession” is not representative when considering investing for the long term future (which is what the comparison really is about).

Unless of course you think something fundamentally changed about the stock market that makes it impossible to do what it has done for another century.

babysteps
babysteps
8 years ago

If you are comparing new vs. used – or used vs. used – and you are a numbers person, the Edmunds website has a lot of data available, including zip-code specific appraisals and ‘total cost to own’ estimates (year-by-year costs by category, for example insurance, gas, maintenance, repairs etc). You can check for a bunch of models, and then once you have a specific model in mind you can look at a bunch of years to see where the sweet spot is for you in terms of lowest price to purchase vs. total cost of ownership/life of car. When I… Read more »

Jim
Jim
8 years ago

“The Nissan Leaf gets an astounding 106 miles per gallon.”

Per gallon of what, exactly?

jim
jim
8 years ago
Reply to  Jim

They have created an MPGe rating or Miles per Gallon Equivalent which is meant to provide a comparable measure for electric cars.
For MPGe
1 gallon of gasoline = 33.7 kw-hr

Theres about 114,000 BTU in either a gallon of gasoline or in 33.7 kWh of electricity.

Becka
Becka
8 years ago

I’m trying not to think about new cars, hoping that if I don’t, my car won’t sense my desire and revolt on me before it’s time.

…but I will no doubt be spending a lot of time on CR when that time comes

SmartMoneyHelp
SmartMoneyHelp
8 years ago

Glad to see a lot of Toyotas in there 🙂

Sara
Sara
8 years ago

Hi JD, your link for “top-rated vehicles in ten categories” is not working.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago
Reply to  Sara

Fixed.

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

“This year, there’s a clear winner in fuel economy. The Nissan Leaf gets an astounding 106 miles per gallon.”

To me it’s astounding that a car which doesn’t ever require gasoline could burn a gallon of the stuff every 106 miles. Any “miles per gallon” figure for an electric car is totally bogus.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan

Yeah, that doesn’t make much sense. Maybe they’re doing some sort of energy equivalency thing?

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

That’s true, they do…I’m not sure the exact process they use to determine it, but regardless, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. To me it’s as if I started measuring my refrigerator’s energy consumption in calories and compared it to the amount of calories I eat. It’s meaningless.

Eric
Eric
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Its a MPGe, Miles per Gallon equivalent. Not a great stat but it allows people to compare the amount of energy used for cars with different fuel types. I’m sure we will be seeing a lot more of the MPGe in the future.

babysteps
babysteps
8 years ago
Reply to  Eric

My brother-in-law lives in a community with their own power generation (that is, really cheap electric) – my spouse sees living in that community & getting a used 100% electric car as the ‘killer app’ for transportation costs 🙂

DC Portland
DC Portland
8 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Please see the link for info on MPGe.

http://www.deathbycar.info/2012/03/mpge-scam/

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago

I’ve had my Subaru Forester for 2 years now and love it to pieces. And, apparently, I have lots of company– here in the Boston area it seems like half the cars on the road are Subarus, a great many of them quite old (in car years).

Not at all surprised by the #1 ranking.

Barb
Barb
8 years ago

Subarus have always been good cars, and they have always been either number one or number two in terms of best used car. As a matter of fact it is hard to find a used one cause everyone drives their subarus until they die-that alone is a testament. I have only ever owned subarus or Toyotas (now a rav4), because of the good repair and longevity factors

ImpulseSave
ImpulseSave
8 years ago

Thanks for sharing! I always look forward to the auto issue for a couple of reasons. They do give great tips, and even though my dad is a mechanic (so I can get free tips any time I want), it’s nice to hear it from someone else, too. Also, the testing station for the Consumer Reports Auto Branch is in my town in CT. I see the cars being driven around town all the time, and it’s nice to finally see what they’ve been up to! What I’m driving: 1991 Toyota Corolla with 76k miles on it. (Yup, you read… Read more »

DC Portland
DC Portland
8 years ago

Like you JD, I once cared about cars – no longer. Regardless, it would be useful for your readers to checkout Consumer Reports “Best & Worst Values” page. This analysis appears to include performance, utility, and reliability for the money.

It is astounding to me that people actually buy new Jeeps, Land Rovers, Mercedes, Chryslers, and Cadillacs. It’s like carrying a “stupid” label with you everywhere you go. Unfortunately, people are easily suckered by perceived image and advertising.

Carla
Carla
8 years ago

I’m always surprised that Mazda rarely makes the list though everyone I know who’ve owned Mazdas were more than happy with the cars long term. I own a Mazda3, and though I haven’t had a long enough to speak on the long-term reliability (year and a half), I can say its a pretty solid car in its class.

Sara
Sara
8 years ago
Reply to  Carla

Agreed, I love my Mazda6!

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

I just bought a 2012 Subaru Outback, so I guess I probably made a good call.

Sleeping Mom
Sleeping Mom
8 years ago

Thanks for this post! I’m looking into getting a new car soon and was gearing towards a hybrid. I didn’t even consider electric but will look into that too.

Bethany
Bethany
8 years ago

Nice to see that both my 2007 Pontiac Vibe, purchased new, but after the ’08s came out, and my SO’s 2010 Scion xB purchased from Carmax in April 2010 are on the list of best used vehicles. The Vibe was made by GM with Toyota, so it’s a GM shell over Toyota parts. Different body shape, but otherwise identical to the Matrix. It was cheaper, and since I keep my cars until they die I didn’t need the resale value that would come with it saying Toyota on the car. I bought new because the price difference at the time… Read more »

rubin pham
rubin pham
8 years ago

i am driving a honda fit for the past 3.5 years. the best car i have ever owned. i had a ford focus before the honda fit. the ford focus transmission died right after 3 years. replacing that transmission cost me over $3,000. to make a long story short, i will not buy american cars again until they improve the quality of their cars. i had owned 2 american cars before. ford focus and ford pinto. both are truly junky cars.

Erica
Erica
8 years ago

I’m still driving my 1997 Toyota RAV4. It has 135,000 miles and I’ve never had to take it in for anything other than replacing some standard stuff around 90,000 miles due to age.

I see a lot of 96s and 97s on the road. Highly recommend this car!

Sharon
Sharon
8 years ago

Before I buy a used car, I search the make, model and year and “complaints.” This lets me see what typically goes wrong with them and decide if I can live with that.

Hyundais are very good little cars for the most part. Likewise Kias. Hondas and Toyotas are often overpriced.

I’ve never bought an American car. Probably never will, either. I’d like to, but they have made crap for as long as I’ve been alive.

billie
billie
8 years ago

We’re currently shopping for a used car (hopefully under $6,000) for our 18 yr old son. He’ll be using it mainly to commute to college starting in the fall. He only has his learners permit now and we’re waiting to find the car for him to finish practicing on for his test (better than my boat or my husband’s finicky manual trans). We’re in the snow belt and our top priority is something safe, then reliability & mileage, knowing that we won’t get the cream of the crop at our budget. Car’s we’re considering: anything Subaru (but 2002 was a… Read more »

Kingston
Kingston
8 years ago
Reply to  billie

You might consider a used Scion if you can find one — they are super-reliable. Scion is a division of Toyota. My 2006 Scion XB, which I bought new, has 135,000 miles and I’ve had zero, I mean ZERO, problems with it — it has never had anything except routine maintenance, and even that I’ve not kept up with as religiously as I should. Of course, mine has standard transmission, which is one less thing to go wrong. If you can possibly go standard, I recommend it.

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  Kingston

Plus, driving a standard is just more fun.

Sharon
Sharon
8 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

AND it is less likely to be stolen, because most casual car thieves can’t drive a stick!

Audrey
Audrey
8 years ago
Reply to  Kingston

I drive a 2005 xA, and I had the speedometer randomly stop working. That was interesting, but I also drive a manual, so uless I was on the highway I had a pretty good idea how fast I was going based on what gear I was in. However, my car was still under warranty, and they fixed it without a problem. I’d buy another xA in a heartbeat when mine dies, but alas, they’ve stopped making them. 🙁

YoungMonopoly
YoungMonopoly
8 years ago
Reply to  billie

Become a member of CR. It’s 30 dollars for a year, but they have a whole list of “best choices used cars” under 4k, 4-6k, 6-8k, etc.

At that price and age range I’d consider a Crown Victoria / Grand Marquis. Indestructible and lots of street credit. 🙂

billie
billie
8 years ago
Reply to  YoungMonopoly

Actually I work for Consumer’s Union (parent company). Not in the location where they do car testing, and I have nothing to do with anything auto related. I don’t get a free subscription, but I did buy the auto issue, and I can get the full online access through my library.

I like getting more opinions, which is why I asked.

Not too sure about the Crown Vic, but I do realize the advantages!

Bethany
Bethany
8 years ago
Reply to  billie

Billie, I’ve got a Vibe and I love it, but even when I bought mine in ’07 the prices on used ones were higher than I expected (so I bought new.) I keep getting things in the mail saying that my car is in “high demand” by used car dealers. No idea if that’s actually true, but it’s probably not helping the price. As I noted above, mechanically a Vibe is a Toyota (all Toyota parts underneath a GM shell) which is probably why they are pricier used than one would expect for an American-made car. My boyfriend has a… Read more »

Matt
Matt
8 years ago

When we bought our last car (a used Mazda5) I read tons of magazines and reviews, but in the end the only things I found truly useful were looking at price, reliability measures and fuel economy. The rest was just test driving/using/imagining (“what will fit in the back with all the seats up?”).

Other reviews are biased toward what that reviewer (or reviewing staff) likes – which may or may not be what you need.

Financial advisor
Financial advisor
8 years ago

I’m all about green cars. I’m glad to see that Prius maintains its position.

Joe
Joe
8 years ago

My 2003 Malibu has a V6 and sips fuel. Got it for under $500. It’s also metal so I can just hammer out dents. Good insurance is about as cheap as it can get on that baby. Enjoy driving your overpriced imports guise!

Carl Lassegue
Carl Lassegue
8 years ago

It’s always good to read the reliability figures before you spend thousands of dollars on a car. Thanks for the post!

Julie @ Freedom 48
Julie @ Freedom 48
8 years ago

I’m sad to see my Ford Escape isn’t on the list =(
Can I just say that I love Consumer Reports! The research, analysis, and objective conclusions are refreshing.

Economically Humble
Economically Humble
8 years ago

This is PERFECT timing. I may actually have to purchase a car for my new job. well, maybe. As you can tell, I’m trying super hard to avoid a call i at all possible.

Rail
Rail
8 years ago

The 82 Buick LeSabre is still going strong!

Brendan
Brendan
8 years ago

If you’re going to buy a car, you should really click the best used vehicles for under $20000 link. I’m a firm believer in buying a used car you can pay for in cash. Why finance something that depreciates in value the minute you drive it off the lot? A reliable 2010 car according to Consumer Reports is still a reliable car! Buy something you can afford and save the monthly payment you would have been making to up level of your next car.
Brendan
themoneybeast.blogspot.com

Drew C.
Drew C.
8 years ago

What do people think of Hyundai’s? They seem to be getting such good reviews compared to the lowly car company they used to be. Any Hyundai owners out there willing to help me out on this?

Holly
Holly
8 years ago
Reply to  Drew C.

LOVE my ’06 Sonata. I bought it used as a bank repo in ’07 and have had zero problems with it so far.

It won me over when I was shopping by being nearly equivalent in MPGs, quietness, and comfort as similar Hondas and Toyotas for much less cheaper. Not sure how they compare now as I plan to drive this one until it drops, but I know I like the look of the newer Sonata miles even more than my ’06.

Deb
Deb
8 years ago

@Babysteps, I agree, I also think Edmunds is one fo the best sights for evaluating autos prior to purchasing. In addition to mpg and purchase price, my major concern was maintenance and repair costs. I narrowed my search down to 3 vehicles, and finally chose a 2006 Scion Xb (Toyota, and no history of recalls for this model). It has low maintenance issues and fees, and according to Edmunds, is the most popular 4 dr sedan under $15k. I don’t know how it ranks with Consumer Reports. I *love* this car! Now I know why there is such a first… Read more »

George
George
4 years ago

I think personally that you should buy a car that fits your needs. I agree that you should buy a car with good reliability. A 2007 Honda Accord is a good example of this. The retail price for the LX is on average $20,720. Also think about and plan how you will pay off a loan on a car in the future if you make one. Just remember that you will need to pay that money back some day. Its also good to make a plan on how you are going to pay off the car. Consumer Reports is one… Read more »

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