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The best vehicles are built by Honda, Subaru and Toyota. They make well-rounded cars that excel across the board, getting very good scores in our road tests and high marks in reliability from subscribers in our Annual Auto Survey.
Those are the findings of our latest automaker report cards, which reflect the performance, reliability, fuel economy and comfort of about 300 vehicles that we've recently tested. Here's what else we found:
- Among domestic automakers, Ford continues to improve in reliability, and some of its cars now rival the best from Japan. Some newer or freshened models, such as the Ford Flex and F-150, also rank in the top of their class in our testing, though other Ford models are merely competent, not outstanding.
- A Japanese nameplate doesn't guarantee that a car is reliable or scores well in our testing. Although most models from Honda, Subaru, and Toyota are very reliable, the Honda Element, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Yaris all score too low in our tests for us to recommend.
- Reliability of Mercedes-Benz models has improved. In recent years it has been below average, and last year all Mercedes-Benz vehicles scored below average in our survey. Now we can recommend about two-thirds of the Mercedes-Benz models for which we have compiled road-test and reliability data.
- Chrysler, which tied with Suzuki for last place in our 2008 ranking, fared even worse this year. Overall reliability of Chrysler vehicles, which was average last year, dropped to below average this year. No Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep vehicles are recommended.
To prepare our automaker report cards, we compiled test and reliability data for every automaker for which we have tested at least four vehicles and calculated a grade.
The final marks are based on a composite of our overall road-test score and predicted reliability rating averaged from all tested models of that automaker. We also note the percentage of each automaker's vehicles we've evaluated that earn our recommendation by performing well in our road tests, having at least average reliability and performing well in government and insurance industry crash tests if tested.
Still on Top
On average, Honda continues to make better all-around vehicles than any other automaker. The reliability of all Honda and Acura models is still the best of any automaker, although Toyota follows closely behind. Last year, Honda was the only automaker that had excellent reliability overall; this year it has dropped slightly.
Although we recommended every Honda and Acura model last year, we've tightened scoring standards, and the Honda Element didn't make the grade this year. (Small SUVs must now score 60 or more in our tests to earn a recommendation; the Element had a test score of 58.)
We still recommend all Subaru models, although Subaru has only four basic models that share similar platforms. Subaru's overall score improved to 75.
A typical Toyota model is a solid performer across all categories and has very good reliability. Several models have the best fuel economy in their class. The Lexus LS and the Toyota Highlander and Sienna are the top-ranked vehicles in their categories. Some Toyota models, such as the FJ Cruiser and Yaris, are subpar performers in our tests and are not recommended despite their stellar reliability.
Hyundai and Suzuki were the only automakers that showed improvement in all three measures: overall score, average test score and reliability.
The past year was especially rough for American automakers as consumers shunned the fuel-thirsty SUVs in their fleets for smaller, more efficient models.
General Motors advertises that it builds 19 cars that get more than 30 mpg on the highway, but that's a relatively low percentage of its fleet, and we have found that even non-SUVs from Detroit tend to have among the worst fuel economy in their class. The domestics don't have any competitive small SUVs or small cars. Overall, the Detroit automakers build just 19 percent of our recommended vehicles.
There is some good news: New models from GM now rank among the best in our testing, although overall reliability, even among some of the new models, still lags behind most of the competition. GM models that score well in our tests include the Buick Enclave, Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Pontiac G8 and Saturn Outlook.
In reliability, some Ford models now rival their competitors from Honda and Toyota. But in our testing, Ford vehicles aren't always among the best performers. Although the Flex and F-150 pickup are high points, most models from Ford, Mercury and Lincoln rate only midpack in our ratings. Still, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan are being updated, and a new Ford Taurus is on its way this summer.
Chrysler is at the bottom of the class, with a drop in its overall score and average reliability rating. Most models from the manufacturer have noisy, inefficient, unrefined powertrains, subpar interiors and poor visibility. Chrysler is the only automaker with no models on our recommended list. But the redesigned and much improved Dodge Ram pickup offers a glimmer of hope. Our tests show it now competes well with the best full-sized pickups.
For more information on how the big three fare, see our Detroit report cards.
European Models Improve
If all that consumers cared about were performance, comfort and safety, Mercedes and Volkswagen models would go to the head of the class. They have the highest average test scores because they ride and handle especially well, have comfortable seats and have relatively good fuel economy and acceleration.
In recent years those vehicles have lagged in reliability. But that has begun to change, with several models from Mercedes and Volkswagen, as well as BMW, Saab, and Volvo attaining average or better predicted reliability.
The best vehicles often set the standard for their competitors to follow or improve upon. In the end, it's the consumer who ends up the ultimate winner.