By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/2/2006 11:53:58 AM ET 2006-03-02T16:53:58

Japanese automakers achieved another milestone in the ongoing humiliation of their U.S. counterparts Wednesday as they captured the top positions in all 10 vehicle categories rated by influential Consumer Reports magazine.

It was the first time in the nine-year history of the respected annual survey that Asian nameplates swept the list of “best” automobiles, which the magazine selects from among a slate of more than 230 vehicle models based on a series of 150 tests, ranging from braking distance to crash ratings and fuel efficiency.

Historically, the Consumer Reports “Top Picks” list has been a blend of Japanese, European and domestic auto models. But this year the Honda Civic, the Infiniti M35 and the Honda Ridgeline all join the list as new entrants, while the fuel-efficient Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which was named the top midsized sport utility vehicle, became the second hybrid-engine vehicle to be featured as a top pick, joining the popular Toyota Prius, which was named the top vehicle in the green car category.

The Honda Civic was named the magazine’s top small sedan, while the Infiniti M35 was named the top luxury sedan. Vehicles from Nissan and Subaru round out the top picks in the magazine’s 10 auto categories.

Asian brands also fared best in the magazine’s survey of vehicle reliability. Toyota’s Lexus nameplate came in first, while the Honda brand was second and Toyota third. Ford’s Mercury brand was the only domestic nameplate to crack the top 10. An 8-year-old Toyota had about the same number of problems as a 2- or 3-year old vehicle from General Motors or Ford, according to the survey of the magazine's readers.

The dominance of Japanese carmakers highlights the difficulties facing big North American automakers, whose U.S. market shares is eroding as they struggle through massive and wrenching reorganizations.

James Guest, president of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, dismissed claims that the magazine is biased against American-made cars, pointing to a 2005 American Demographics study, conducted by Advertising Age, that found Consumer Reports to be the most trustworthy media outlet for consumer information.

“Let me set the record straight,” Guest said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “We have one standard, and it’s based on our rigorous testing and what’s best for the consumer. The bottom line is these cars won their place by beating the competition in all the test categories.”

While Asian carmakers continue to make the most reliable cars, overall car quality is declining, according to David Champion, director of automobile testing at Consumer Reports. The magazine polled some one million subscribers about 17 different trouble spots in their cars, and asked them whether they had serious problems with their vehicles in the past year, or had to take them to a dealer.

Consumer Reports also crunched numbers on readers’ experiences with 810,000 vehicles from the 1998 through 2005 model years. Video: Best U.S. cars

The results showed Japanese and Korean brands had 12 problems per 100 vehicles, while U.S. automakers had 18 problems and European makers had 21 problems. Asian and U.S. automakers have been improving their scores, but appeared to stall in 2005, the magazine said, while European automakers’ ratings haven’t changed substantially in the last four years.

After Lexus, Honda and Toyota, brands rounding out the top 10 for reliability were Mitsubishi, Subaru, Acura, Scion, Mercury, Mazda and Suzuki. The 10 lowest-rated brands were Audi, Infiniti, Saturn, Lincoln, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Land Rover, Hummer and Porsche.

“Domestic vehicles have made substantial advances, Ford is doing better than GM and Chrysler, but new model launches are not as good,” Champion said, adding that one reason for the decline in reliability may be the rise in electronic features in cars. “We are seeing many more electronic features, and that’s the biggest trouble area readers tell us about.”

Reliability is what sells cars, Champion added, noting that if a car has to go back to the dealer in the final year of ownership, a buyer is less likely to purchase another car from that manufacturer. “But you’re more likely to go back if the car is reliable,” he added. “I still think that, going forward, domestic carmakers need to fix the problems with their current cars is to stem their decline in market share and catch up with the Asians.”

Last year, Japanese -brand vehicles were the top picks in nine of the magazine's 10 categories. Japanese manufacturers continue to fare well in Consumer Reports tests because they concentrate on redesigning their vehicles and improving reliability, said Consumer Reports automotive editor Rik Paul. “We’re not talking about [all] Japanese cars, but in particular Toyota and Honda — they build cars that are the whole package, so they rise to the top in our tests.”

Champion offered another theory for Japan’s dominance: “When the Japanese first came into the U.S. market their cars were not that good, but they had bulletproof reliability and that is what sold them,” he said. “Keeping reliability as good as possible is a huge priority to them, and they place a great deal of emphasis on it,” he said, adding that Japan’s background in the electronics industry may also help the durability of their automobiles. “The U.S. and Europe have lost a lot of that capacity.”

Japan’s Honda had the most winners in this year’s list of “best” automobiles, snagging top picks in five of the 10 categories. Besides the redesigned Civic, the Honda Accord was the top family sedan between $20,000 and $30,000 and the Acura TL was the top upscale sedan between $30,000 and $40,000. The Honda Odyssey was the top minivan and the Ridgeline, Honda’s first entry in the pickup market, was the top pickup.

Toyota and Subaru each had two winners, including the Subaru Forester for small SUV and the Toyota Prius for “green car.” Nissan had one, the Infiniti M35 luxury sedan, which the magazine called “an excellent balance of performance, comfort and handling.”

Consumer Reports names its top picks based on a series of tests, including evaluations of comfort, convenience and fuel economy, road and track tests, crash protection ratings from the government and insurance industry and readers’ reliability rankings.

Video: Japanese vehicles

The magazine’s list of top picks will appear in the annual April auto issue, which hits newsstands on March 7. The list can have a powerful influence on a vehicle’s reputation. Consumer Reports’ rankings are important to automakers, even though companies are not permitted to use the ratings in their advertising.

Consumer Reports spokeswoman Lauren Hackett said the April auto issue is consistently the magazine’s most popular, selling more than 300,000 copies at newsstands. That’s twice as many copies as its second-most popular issue, the November electronics issue.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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