The ogre of Consumer Reports says Ford, GM close to better ratings

David Champion makes his living trying to break cars. With instrumentation.

He’s the chief of auto testing for Consumer Reports. He and his staff spend their days at the magazine’s test track in central Connecticut, measuring braking distances, fuel economy and timing acceleration. Every year, Consumer Reports sifts through a million or so detailed vehicle-owner surveys, tabulating real-life car reliability reports.

Every spring, based on documented on-road performance, Champion’s crew picks vehicles for Consumer Reports’ coveted “Recommended” designation. And every spring, well-performing vehicles get cut from the recommended list because their reliability is below average in the survey.

It’s a tough double hurdle. Not all reliable cars are terrific performers. Not all excellent performers are reliable.

Automakers may not be thrilled by Champion. The Detroit 3 in particular complain that CR favors import brands. But with 7 million Consumer Reports subscribers, they listen to him.

On the show floor in Detroit today, Champion had some tips for General Motors and Ford on how to get more “recommended” vehicles.

GM has the performance to get more recommended vehicles, but many of them need to be more reliable.

Ford has worked hard for five years to build very reliable cars, but many need to perform better against their rivals.

And then there’s Chrysler. Champion is, well, under whelmed by both its reliability and performance. “The worst of the worst,” he says, declining to compare Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep to any other brand. What does Chrysler need to get a “Recommended?”

“A whole new product portfolio,” he said.

But Champion hardly sounds like an ogre when he compares Ford to other brands.

“On reliability, Ford is up there with top brands like Honda, Toyota and Subaru. The reliability is top to bottom. Its vehicles are just a bit bland.”

GM’s products perform very well on many of the criteria Consumer Reports considers important: on-road performance, fuel economy, interiors and features. But on reliability, many of its vehicles fall below average.

Champion compares GM brands with middle-of-the-pack brands such as Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen. GM’s biggest stumbling block is consistency, Champion says.

Most European premium brands, Champion ranks as average on reliability, although he says Mercedes and Audi have made an effort recently to improve. Champion’s words are not always welcome. But from his perspective, they reflect what a million car owners say about their real-life experience.

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