Japanese stay atop Consumer Reports rankings as Detroit struggles

Lexus still on top; Ford, Jeep place last

Lexus received a score of 79 out of 100, the same as last year, for a car and SUV lineup Consumer Reports deemed "quiet, plush, and very reliable" -- though less engaging to drive than those of some rivals.

UPDATED: 2/25/14 2:12 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Detroit has come clawing back from the brink with award-winning products, but Japanese and luxury brands still have the best lineups of cars and light trucks in the industry, the editors of the influential shopping guide Consumer Reports say.

Japanese automakers captured seven of the top 10 ranked brands rated for overall reliability and road-test performance in tests conducted by the magazine; the top-ranked Detroit brands -- Buick and GMC -- tied to rank 12th, and five Detroit brands rounded out the bottom five.

Consumer Reports' top-rated brand was again Lexus. Toyota Motor Corp.'s luxury brand received a score of 79 out of 100, the same as last year, for a car and SUV lineup the magazine deemed "quiet, plush, and very reliable" -- though less engaging to drive than those of some rivals.

Among the top 10 brands, Lexus was followed by Acura, Audi, Subaru and Toyota (tied for fourth place), Mazda, Honda, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz and BMW and Volvo (tied for 10th place).

The biggest gainer in the rankings, Audi, surged from eighth place in 2013 to third place this year, thanks to a lineup that received the top score on road tests and showed signs of improved reliability. The German luxury brand's score of 74 fell behind only Lexus and Acura -- which scored a 75, a point better than last year.

"Audi has been making very impressive vehicles, but what's really impressive about them is: They're reliable too," said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.

The magazine, which tests cars in Connecticut and has 8 million magazine subscribers, released the results of its 2014 "report card" at an event today in Washington.

Overall brand scores are a composite of the average road-test score for each model tested by the magazine, as well as each brand's average predicted-reliability score for models tested, based on the problems reported by subscribers in Consumer Reports' annual auto survey.

Detroit's woes

All Detroit 3 brands ranked from middling to subpar. The score given to Cadillac, last year's top-ranked Motor City marque, plunged from 63 last year to 54, largely due to electronic controls that Consumer Reports found confusing.

Buick, GMC and Chrysler, ranked 14th with a score of 62, rated best among the Detroit brands, ahead of mass-market rivals Kia, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Nissan, but shy of Subaru, Toyota, Mazda and Honda.

Dodge, the last-place brand in 2013, moved up in the rankings thanks to a redesigned Durango SUV that the magazine deemed "excellent," if unproven, and decent reliability scores for the Dodge Dart compact sedan.

Coming in last were Ford and Jeep, which both scored a 50.

Consumer Reports said Ford's struggles were due to lingering complaints about the MyFord Touch infotainment system, and Jeep's were attributed to a "crude and outdated" lineup. Though the Jeep Grand Cherokee did well on the track, the magazine dinged its weak reliability scores and said the new Cherokee "isn't that competitive."

Fisher said the Detroit 3 are "going the right way" with more recent products like the Chevrolet Impala, which the magazine says is the best large sedan on the market, based on road tests.

"If GM had a whole lineup of Impalas," Fisher said, "they'd be right on top, quite honestly."

But Fisher called Ford a "sad story."

"The Ford Fusion, not only does it look, but it drives like a good European sports car. It really does," Fisher said. "The problem is the reliability, and that's what's dragging down that brand."

Consumer Reports did not rank Fiat, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mini, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Ram, Scion, Smart and Tesla because it had too few recently tested models from those brands to assess.

But two of those brands -- Ram and Tesla -- received high marks for key models in what the magazine calls its top picks in 10 key segments.

Plaudits for Ram, Tesla

Chrysler Group's redesigned Ram 1500 was rated the best pickup on the market, with a quiet cabin and smooth ride that Consumer Reports says makes the truck "surprisingly refined and inviting."

The magazine rated the new 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra slightly higher than the Ram on road tests, but said today it lacks enough data on the reliability of the two GM models to justify naming either of them the best in the segment.

It is the first time in 16 years that Chrysler Group has cracked the top picks list, which historically has been dominated by Japanese brands such as Toyota and Honda. Japanese brands have won more than 70 percent of the spots in the magazine's "top pick" rankings since 1997, including seven of 10 segments last year.

They won five of 10 this year. Honda and Subaru were the only brands to win more than one segment, receiving two "top picks" honors apiece.

"There was a time when a handful of brands dominated our Top Picks list, but in recent years we've seen a more diverse group make the cut," Rik Paul, automotive editor at Consumer Reports, said in a statement.

Also included in that diverse group is Tesla, which had its Model S sedan rated best vehicle overall. Consumer Reports has praised the Model S since its launch in late 2012, giving it the magazine's best ever score: 99 out of 100.

The other newcomers to the list of Top Picks were the Hyundai Santa Fe, which replaced the Toyota Highlander atop the magazine's mid-sized SUV segment, and the Subaru Forester, which replaced the Honda CR-V atop the small SUV segment.

 Overall scoreAverage road-test scoreRecommended vehicles
Source: Consumer Reports
Segment-by-segment winners Overall: Tesla Model S Compact car: Subaru Impreza Mid-sized sedan: Honda Accord (4-cylinder) Small SUV: Subaru Forester Mid-sized SUV: Hyundai Santa Fe Pickup truck: Ram 1500 Minivan: Honda Odyssey Green car: Toyota Prius Luxury car: Audi A6 Sports sedan: BMW 328i

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com

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