Consumer Reports ranks just below recommendations from friends when it comes to the influence it wields in the automotive marketplace, according to a USA Today survey. So when the venerable magazine weighs in on quality and reliability, consumers pay attention.
This year, the magazine says Honda remains the number-one brand for reliability, with all of its vehicles recommended. And despite recently recalling over 10 million vehicles, Toyota was still ahead of Detroit when it comes to reliability. There was some good news for the domestics, however, starting with the Ford Fusion. The magazine says it is the most reliable family sedan in America, ahead of both the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord.
But don't expect to find any of these findings, no matter how surprising or enlightening, advertised, posted on company Facebook pages, or even tweeted. One of the ways Consumer Reports maintains its influence is by keeping a tight reign on its brand, and policing what automakers say about their ratings.
Can these rankings really impact sales in a big way? "Absolutely," says GM's marketing chief Joel Ewanick. "Our rankings are getting much better, and I feel like it will be a very short time before we are at total parity with the industry's leaders on quality.
“In the meantime, many of our individual models are scoring ahead of our competition and that is going to help those models," said Ewanick. "I wish some times we could advertise results."
Integrity Means No Advertising
But at the core of Consumer Reports' influence is its refusal to play in the advertising space. So, while automotive enthusiast magazines sometimes get criticized for taking free trips to exotic places by the automakers, or possibly velvet-gloving a mediocre car to appease a generous advertiser, CR has never had to dodge any questions. It buys the cars it tests, more than 80 per year, and then resells them. And its surveys are filled out by subscribers who pay an annual fee to access the company's website and get the magazine delivered at home.
"We hold a firm line on this, and we believe it's one of the things that makes us so influential," says Consumer Reports spokesman Doug Love. Consumer Reports tweets about some of its findings and ratings, but it does not allow automakers to re-tweet. When a company forgets the rule, they get an e-mail or phone call if CR spots it. Even when an individual consumer re-tweets a CR tweet, automakers have to be careful about retweeting that, because there would be suspicions that companies would put "agents" up to tweeting CR's ratings just so they could retweet them, one step removed from the magazine.
Germans’ Poor Performance
One group of companies CR won’t have to worry about tweeting its results are the Big Three German luxury brands. "Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among the worst automakers overall in terms of reliability," says David Champion, Senior Director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Division.
Indeed, BMW had a bad year, with five of its 11 models scoring below average. Almost all of the Audi models were "below average." "The Europeans are going in the wrong direction," says Champion.
It may not have been a coincidence that BMW chose the day CR criticized the German carmaker for problems with its fuel system and fuel pump in several of its models, including the 1 Series, 3 Series and 5 Series to issue a voluntary recall around the problem. BMW said it notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it would recall 130,000 vehicles from the 2007-2010 model years for emissions problems. The recall covers the 2007-2010 335i; 2008-2010 135i, 535i and X6 xDrive35i Sports Activity Coupes; and 2009-2010 Z4 Roadster sDrive35i. All the vehicles have twin-turbo, inline-six-cylinder engines featuring BMW's direct fuel-injection system. In all, five of BMW's 11 models scored below average and not recommended.
With Audi, Consumer Reports slapped the dreaded “not recommended” label on three of its cars, the A3, the A6 with a supercharged, 3-liter V6 engine, and the Q5. The Audi A6 was tied with the Jaguar XF for the worst new car prediction score. Not all the Germans were bad, though. The Porsche Boxster has the best-predicted reliability score in Consumer Reports survey of any car.
Questioning The Results
For all that impartiality, though, the ratings, while valuable, are not immune to certain puzzling outcomes that makes one wonder about accuracy. While feedback from owners, combined with safety tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and CR's own reviews made the new Chevy Equinox a recommended car, the GMC Terrain, mechanically the same and built at the same factory drew enough complaints to put it below average, and thus not recommended.
Are GMC owners tougher graders? Can demographics of an owner group influence the outcome of some of the ratings? Champion says no, and that the number of surveys that come back should wash out any emotional influences that might show up in the survey results. Why the discrepancy then? "I have no idea," admits Champion.
But it's not the first time he has seen it. In past years, the Nissan Versa sedan scores well enough to be recommended, but the hatchback version, he notes, has had enough complaints in the surveys to knock it off the list. Also curious is why the Ford Fusion Hybrid, with a much more complex engine and potential for problems, out-ranks the gas versions of the car for reliability? One could argue that a Fusion Hybrid owner, filling out the survey in the glow that envelops so many hybrid owners, is an easier grader. Champion doubts that, and notes that the Toyota Prius dropped in reliability to merely average this year after the car was subjected to recalls including brake problems.
Before CR will rank a car at all, it has to get at least 100 surveys back from owner subscribers. That's why, for example, readers will see a V6 and a four-cylinder version of the Ford Fusion in the rankings, as well as the Fusion Hybrid. If CR did not receive at least 100 surveys back from V6 owners, that version of the car would not be ranked.
The other findings in the magazine's annual auto issue show that GM gained the most ground, but in part because it shuttered some of the brands that perennially dragged it down in the rankings -- Hummer, Saab, Pontiac and Saturn. Still, Chevrolet, GM's most important brand with 70 percent of the company's sales, had 83 percent of its models ranked "Average" or "Above Average" reliability, which makes them recommended by Consumer Reports. Ford posted an overall gain in reliability, and now has 90 percent of its models in the recommended category, making it statistically even with Toyota and just behind Lexus.
Chrysler has the longest road ahead of it, with the magazine recommending just one of its models, the Dodge Ram 1500. "Chrysler has a long way to come back," says David Champion. He was quick to add that he thinks Fiat ownership of Chrysler will improve Chrysler's ratings in the next few years. He said the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is much better than the old one, and that his meetings with Fiat executives indicates to him that they are serious about making big gains in reliability.And of course, Champion doesn't have to say that in the hopes of attracting any ads from Chrysler.