By all accounts, Detroit's Big Three automakers have begun producing better-made, longer lasting, more efficient vehicles. It's a distinct change from the 1990s and early 2000s, when they fell behind their European and Asian counterparts in each category.
"This change is not even a gradual thing," says Christine Overstreet, an automotive consultant and director of Heels and Wheels. "It's like they've said, 'OK, we really want to step it up, we really want to compete, we're ready.' After past years of being so bad, they've really stepped up their game."
But with three exceptions — the Mercedes-Benz S550, Smart Fortwo and Nissan Titan — all of the cars on this year's list of the Worst Cars on the Road are (still) made by domestic companies. That includes the Dodge Dakota, Chevy Tahoe Hybrid and Chrysler Town & Country. The only American car company with zero vehicles on the list? Ford.
To determine our list of the worst-made cars on the road, we started with the lowest-rated vehicles from six reliability and performance studies conducted this year by Consumer Reports.
Any car, truck or SUV named among the worst in at least two of those studies made the final cut to be on the "Worst" list.
We should note that the Mercedes S550 is the only vehicle that qualified for our list because of a high cost of ownership, low fuel efficiency and a low rating for overall value, not because of any problems with reliability, safety or performance, which affected every other vehicle in the top 10. Indeed, luxury vehicles like that sedan and the Cadillac Escalade are arguably at a disadvantage on lists like this — their luxurious interior upgrades, high-quality trim and powerful engines work against them.
"The worst value, the highest cost of ownership--you've got to remember there is a numerator and a denominator in these things," says Terry Woychowski, the vice president for quality and global launches for General Motors. "To use an analogy of a watch: If you looked at dollars to buy a watch vs. accuracy of time, you'd probably buy a Casio. [Compare that] to the price and value in a Rolex — you'd say, 'Well, shoot. It costs so much!' For vehicles like this, it's an uphill battle."
We should also note that nearly every car or truck made today is safer, more efficient and more reliable than anything on the road even as recently as 15 years ago. But that doesn't excuse just how often vehicles like the Jeep Liberty are panned for poor reliability or poor fuel economy — or both.
Jeep's Liberty and Wrangler earned spots on Consumer Reports' Least Reliable list for 2011. The Wrangler also received Consumer Reports' Worst Value and Worst Cars distinctions, the latter of which is based on more than 50 individual Consumer Reports tests and evaluations. The Wrangler also appeared on our Worst Cars list last year.
Doug Betts, Chrysler's senior vice president of quality, says the Consumer Reports tests don't reflect the latest, most up-to-date vehicles the company is currently manufacturing. The cars and trucks Chrysler has coming off the line now are far better than cars made even last year, he said in a statement about the reports.
"Customers will see 16 all-new or significantly updated vehicles at Ram, Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep and Fiat dealers this year," Betts said. "These vehicles represent a new level of interior refinement, world-class fit and finish and significantly enhanced driving dynamics."
Similarly, and despite significant improvements since hitting bottom in 2009, GM has some work to do before it can regain a good reputation fleet-wide. Four GM-made vehicles — the Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, Chevrolet Colorado and Chevrolet Aveo/Aveo5 — are ranked as among the worst on the market today. All but the Tahoe Hybrid qualified for the Worst Cars list last year as well.
"As our new vehicles come in, as we continue to launch vehicles, as we continue to do exceedingly better, I think the perception that we've noticed is already turning," Woychowski says. "I look forward to the next year or two when we continue this momentum to where it simply becomes a [good] reputation."
Woychowski expressed the same frustration with the ratings that Chrysler's Betts did. He noted a 45 percent reduction in GM-brand warranty repairs since 2007 and said cars like the Aveo won't be on lists like this much longer anyway.
"We get paid to get smarter every day," Woychowski says. "When we build that last Aveo, it will be the finest one we've ever made ... because the person who goes to buy this vehicle this afternoon, we want them to have the best vehicle we've ever produced."
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