When it comes to American cars and trucks, Consumer Reports' ratings border on cruelty. And while I agree CR is the gold standard of auto ratings, I've often wondered if American and German vehicles are that far behind their Japanese rivals. Sadly, it is so.
Here are examples (paraphrased except where quotes are used): GM's Colorado pickup has an “unrefined” 5-cylinder engine offering no better fuel economy than a six. “The ride is unsettled and the body constantly quivers.” In five out of eight of the important circle ratings, the vehicle gets fair (half black) or poor (solid black). It's the same for the Dodge RAM 1500 and only somewhat better for the venerable Ford F150. By comparison, Toyota, CR's favorite automaker, scores big with its Tacoma, getting the prized “recommended” rating along with five red circles. It is only dinged for poor fuel economy and well, a truck-like ride.
While the gap has closed somewhat — GM now has 15 recommended models to Toyota's 17 — the Americans have trailed the Japanese for decades. It should be noted both lists have several overlapping models. For instance, Toyota's “recommended” list contains two Siennas and four Camrys. Likewise, GM has two Buick Lucernes, three Chevy Malibus and two GMC Yukons. Strip out the model overlap and Toyota's edge over GM narrows a bit more to 10-9.
One dubious area where the Americans dominate is poor reliability based on CR's annual auto consumer reliability survey, which I dutifully filled out. Of the 42 “bad bets” for used cars, the Americans own 21 spots. The lopsidedness is greater with the “good bets”: Japanese carmakers earned 55 out of 59 spots. Just about every Honda and Toyota model made the list. The Americans got the other four while the Europeans got a goose egg.
CR's website contains information on just about everything. The auto section now has blogs and is looking for stories about cars with more than 200,000 miles. My Mercedes E230 is getting close, but is still far behind Irv Gordon's Volvo P1800, which has logged 2.3 million miles. With two teenage drivers, I currently have vehicles from Korea, Germany, the U.S. and Japan. Our 18-month-old Acura TSX — a Honda product — is just an OK vehicle with a scratch-prone paint job. Hey, I'm rooting for the underdog and the next time I buy new I want to go with my countrymen.
How does CR come up with those ratings? Chuck Murray visited CR's 327-acre test facility last month to find out. He didn't just report why automaker CEOs visit the track to plead their cases with CR's small staff of engineers. To better understand the 50 performance tests vehicles undergo, Chuck rode with Testing Director David Champion and in one maneuver hit speeds of 130 mph. Our intrepid reporter recorded his experiences with his trusty camcorder and produced seven videos that are on our website. Check them out and his great story about how the track operates. Then you'll understand why CR, whose independence from the automakers is legendary, gets so much respect.
What do you think of CR's ratings? Write me at email@example.com or comment at my blog, Design Engineering at Large.