Ford CEO Alan Mulally has been here. So has Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche, GM vice chairman Bob Lutz and brigades of other curious automotive engineers. They come to the race track in this sleepy rural town, at an address so obscure that it’s not even in the database of some car navigation devices, because they want to learn from the eight engineers who test vehicles here.
“Despite what some of them may say in public, the importance of Consumer Reports, owned by Consumers Union, is recognized most strongly at the highest levels of the automotive industry,” says a Big Three insider who asked not to be named. “They’re the best in the business, no doubt about it.”
Indeed, Consumer Reports’ automotive test facility has become recognized as the best in the world at automotive evaluation, much to the chagrin of many vehicle line engineers whose products have sometimes been harshly criticized, largely because it has extraordinary influence over the car-buying public. And because those eight engineers know what they’re doing.
At Consumers Union’s 327-acre site, the small engineering staff pulls off what no one else in the car evaluation business even tries. It runs vehicles through a battery of 50 performance tests, then matches those results up against data from 1.3 million car owners, the better to tell whether a vehicle’s initial performance matches up against its long-term reliability.
“Most cars are not bad in the first year,” says David Champion, senior director of automotive testing for Consumers Union. “But as cars age, they tend to become much less reliable.”
To be sure, not every automaker is thrilled by the prospect of having its vehicles rated by Consumer Reports. Manufacturers such as Mercedes, Chrysler, and Volkswagen have repeatedly felt the sting of poor ratings. Mercedes has even famously argued that the organization’s data is “out of sync” with mainstream test data.
Still, Champion says that top-level automotive executives are showing up here because they want to learn how to do better in Consumer Reports’ rankings. “At one time, they came here to shoot the messenger, but now they’re coming to understand.”
At The Track
When they arrive, automotive engineers see a beefed-up race track that includes a 4,100-foot-long straightaway, rock hill course for off-roading, vehicle handling circuit, two skid pads, 1.5-mile ride evaluation course, and buildings dedicated to tire and headlight testing. There, Consumers Union engineers perform tests in such areas as acceleration, handling, braking, ride, noise, visibility, safety, fuel economy, seat comfort, cargo volume and transmission performance. All of the tests are performed on vehicles purchased by Consumers Union – 85 of them in 2006 at a cost of nearly $3 million.
Wherever possible, subjectivity is removed from performance tests. On the skid pad, for example, engineers employ three-axis accelerometers close to the center of gravity of the vehicles. Then, with the
accelerometer connected to a laptop computer in the car, they measure maximum lateral “G” as vehicles drive in a circle.
“We look at the car’s grip and balance on that test,” Champion says. “The better the lateral G, the better the handling.”
Similarly, they employ gyroscopes in vehicles that are likely to roll, particularly those with high centers of gravity. By doing so, they’re able to identify cars, SUVs or trucks with the potential for disaster in hard turns.
The organization’s engineers also use a completely objective means in their acceleration and braking tests. By using an optical sensor-based technique from Corrsys-Datron, they can tell how far a vehicle has gone and how fast. They apply the sensor-based method to 0-30 mph, 0-60 mph and quarter-mile time tests, as well as 60-0 mph braking tests under wet and dry conditions.
Other performance tests are more subjective, calling on the organization’s engineers to employ their testing experience. On a serpentine track handling course, for instance, engineers drive vehicles hard, taking turns with tires squealing and then watch for certain characteristic flaws.
“We look for nasty habits,” Champion says. “Does it exhibit liftoff-oversteer?”
Such problems, which occur when drivers lift off the accelerator on an exit ramp, are commonplace, he says. “The Toyota Yaris hatchback, which is aimed at younger drivers without a lot of driving skills, has shown us that it will slide around.” Most vehicles with electronic stability control systems don’t exhibit this problem, Champion says, although he has seen liftoff-oversteer in a Cadillac CTS, which does feature stability control.
To test transmissions, engineers drive a 30-mile loop on both rural and city roads. They travel on high-speed Interstates and two-lane highways, traversing hills and making hard stops, all as a means of examining shifting characteristics.
Champion says that the experience of the Consumers Union engineers plays a key role in such evaluations. Champion himself is a former Land Rover engineer, two staff members worked as automotive engineers at GM, two come from tire companies and one has 32 years' experience as a vehicle tester for Consumers Union.
“Some tests are subjective,” Champion explains. “But with a group of engineers who have been doing this year-in and year-out, we’ve come to understand what the consumer experiences.”
Consumers Weigh In
Consumer Reports’ evaluations distinguish themselves from others, however, by their use of reliability data in conjunction with the performance tests. Some vehicles perform exceptionally well on the track, only to fall flat when data from the magazine’s 1.3 million respondents comes in.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is one such vehicle family. “Its ride, handling, steering and balance make it really fun to drive,” Champion says. “It gives really good feedback. It’s comfortable and relatively roomy. Its seats are comfortable. The engine is good. But the reliability is down the tubes. And if you’re paying this much for a car, this is not what you want to see.”
The organization comes to such conclusions by drawing on the results of a six-page survey that goes out to approximately seven million readers (print plus online). About 960,000 readers responded to the last year’s survey, representing 1.3 million vehicles. Some vehicles, such as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Honda Oddysey, are represented by as many as 4,000 respondents. No vehicle is represented by less than a hundred.
Champion says that some of the most telling information comes from the surveys. The surveys accomplish that by examining a multitude of potential problem areas, including engine, transmission, fuel system, electrical, climate system, suspension, brakes, exhaust and body integrity. “The reason that Toyota and Honda have done so well in the U.S. market is that in the fourth, fifth and sixth year of ownership, people have no problems with them. They service them. They change the oil. They might put new brakes or tires on them, but that’s it.”
By contrast, other manufacturers have fared poorly, and Consumers Union engineers don’t hesitate to say so. “The Volkswagen Passat is a very nice car,” Champion says. “Very highly rated. But at about 80,000 miles, things start to go wrong. The window regulator goes bad, and they can’t get the window back up. The ‘check engine’ light lights up. All sorts of little bits and pieces go wrong.”
The point, Champion says, is that vehicles can be well-engineered for performance and still not be reliable. One such car is the Mercedes ML500. A joy to drive, the ML500 fails in Consumer Reports’ reliability measures. In fact, Champion argues, a nine-year-old, 1998 Lexus LS400 exhibits fewer problems than an ML500 in its first year of ownership.
“You can forgive a car once a year,” he says. “But when you take it in and get one problem fixed and another surfaces, and then the ‘check engine’ light goes on and the door handle breaks, that’s it.”
Automotive insiders (several of whom refused to be quoted for this article) say that there’s a lesson in Consumer Reports’ conclusions.
“If we listen, we’re going to learn about misplaced priorities,” says one Big Three engineer who asked not to be named. “The car business in general is a very insulated group. We’re all off by ourselves and we all talk to each other and that can be a bad situation.”
Some automotive engineers believe that automakers should learn from Consumer Reports data, especially since it is coming directly from their own customers.
A Ford spokesman says that is exactly what the company’s new CEO, Alan Mulally, who came to Ford from Boeing, was trying to do when he visited the Consumers Union facility in February.
“He went out there because what they say matters to the people who buy our products,” says Bill Collins, a Ford spokesman. “Their results speak for themselves. They’ve got enormous credibility with the public and they’ve been building on it for 70 years.”
Champion says that confrontations at the Connecticut-based facilities are rare these days, although GM vice chairman Bob Lutz did try to tell Consumer Reports’ engineers how to do their jobs during a visit last year.
“Most engineers know exactly where their products fall short,” Champion says. “The ones who come in here just want to know how they can do better in the eyes of the consumer.”