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For car reliability, looking East is still best

2007 Honda Accord sedans
The Honda Accord continued its run as one of Consumer Reports’ most-reliable car picks in 2007.David Zalubowski / AP file

Japanese vehicle brands continue to rule the roost when it comes to car reliability, according to the latest annual survey from Consumer Reports.

Toyota and Honda’s brands scored top marks overall in the magazine’s “2007 Annual Car Reliability Survey,” which was compiled from survey responses from over 1.3 million magazine subscribers. The survey results will appear in the April issue of Consumer Reports magazine, which goes on sale March 6.

Toyota, Honda, Scion, Acura and Lexus took the top five places, in order, in the Consumer Reports list of the 36 most reliable car brands for 2007. Ford’s Mercury brand was the highest-placed U.S. nameplate, ranking 10th, while General Motors’ best-ranking brand was GMC, which came in at 14th on the list. Chrysler highest ranking was for its Dodge brand, which was placed 22nd on the list.

What’s more, for the second time in the 10-year history of the annual list, all of the magazine’s top car picks were Japanese brands. In addition, 55 of the 59 used car models recommended by the magazine were Japanese, again dominated by Toyota and Honda.

The snub by the closely watched consumer publication comes at a time of crisis for the Detroit-based automakers — GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group. All three U.S. automakers are shedding jobs and closing plants in an attempt to cope with a devastating loss of market share.

“Japanese models are still the most reliable — Toyota and Honda in particular,” said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports. “For years, their vehicles have consistently been the least problematic and the best in terms of reliability for years.”

On average, the biggest increase in reported problems for cars comes when they are between 5 and 6 years old, which is when many owners think about selling their car. This is also the point where Toyota and Honda’s models excel in terms of reliability Paul said. The average 10-year-old Toyota or Honda has the same, or fewer, problems than a 4 or 5-year-old car from any of the U.S. automakers, or Volkswagen, he said.

“What we see is if a car starts out with problems in the first couple of years it will tend to stay problematic throughout its lifetime,” Paul said. “This is where Toyota and Honda really shine — they start out well and maintain their reliability, even through 10 years of use, and so a 9-year-old Lexus can have fewer problems than a 2006 Mercedes.”

When it comes to comparing new cars by nationality, one trend stood out: European automakers continue to lag Asian and North American manufacturers when it comes to reliability.

The big Japanese and the South Korean automakers have, on average, only 11 problems per 100 vehicles, the magazine said. U.S. automakers follow with 16 problems per 100, while European manufacturers have 19 problems per 100 cars.

In fact, European automakers have consistently fared poorly in recent years in Consumer Reports’ reliability surveys. Mercedes-Benz, in particular, has seen its reliability ranking decline sharply — this year, the German luxury brand placed last in the reliability list of 36 automobile brands, its reliability level 123 percent below the average for the whole industry, said Paul.

“We have seen lows in recent years for European carmakers, but this was a particularly bad year for Mercedes-Benz — it surprised a lot of people,” said Paul. 

Consumer Reports placed the Mercedes-Benz CLS, M-Class and R-Class on its “Not Recommended” list because of declining reliability. A third of survey respondents who owned the 2001 Mercedes-Benz C-Class V6 owners “griped about serious electrical problems,” the magazine report said.

Hyundai, by contrast, entered the top ten most reliable car brand list for the first time in 2007, rising to number seven. The ascent of the South Korean automaker is a good example of how an automaker can improve reliability, said Rick Paul.

“Hyundai was at the bottom of the list when it came to reliability five or six years ago, but now they’re number seven in a list of 36, so they’ve really been able to improve their reliability,” Paul said. “The fact that Hyundai can turn things around in just a few years proves that it can be done, and so despite Mercedes’ problems and everything we read about the reliability problems of the Big Three U.S. automakers, Hyundai is a good example of what can be achieved.”

Consumer Reports also releases its “Top Picks List for 2007” in its April issue, identifying the cars that it recommends to consumers because they have met its stringent requirements in test categories such as handling, braking, acceleration, fuel economy and comfort.

Top picks must also have a proven average or higher reliability, based on the Consumer Reports survey responses, and also perform adequately in government or insurance crash testing.

Consumer Reports named five new models to its 2007 Top Picks list — the Toyota RAV4, the Infiniti G35, Toyota Sienna, the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the new Honda Fit. The Toyota Prius remains the Top Pick in the “green car” category for the fourth year in a row, having demonstrated an excellent 44 miles per gallon overall fuel economy, showing the best fuel economy of any five passenger vehicle, Consumer Reports said.

2007 marks the second time since 1997, when the list was first introduced, that all the vehicles on Consumer Reports’ “Top Picks” list are Japanese nameplates. Historically, the Consumer Reports list is blend of Japanese, European and domestic models.

But Paul cautioned against what he called “the Japanese myth.” Few automakers score well in both Consumer Reports testing and readers’ responses to reliability surveys, the magazine found.

Toyota scores highly when it comes to reliability, but in the last year Consumer Reports tested Toyota models — the Yaris and the FJ Cruiser — that rated low in certain categories, Paul said. As a result, Toyota’s average test score was only ninth out of 17 carmakers.

The same is true for European automakers, he added.

Volkswagen, for example, earned the highest test score in Consumer Reports testing, but only an average rating for reliability. And Mercedes-Benz’s had the fourth highest average test score out of 17 automakers tested, but was at the bottom of the table when it comes to reliability he said.

The sole automaker that scored consistently in all categories was Honda, coming second in Consumer Reports tests and tying first with Toyota and Subaru for best average reliability rating. Honda had the highest average test score and was the only manufacturer other than Subaru to have its entire vehicle line-up endorsed by Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports is published by the nonprofit Consumers Union. The magazine anonymously buys test cars from dealers and spent $2.8 million last year on vehicles. It also accepts no paid advertising.