(MONEY Magazine) - Name a car, and there's at least one award that its maker can brag about winning from the Automotive Award-Giving Institute, or some such entity. Even respected vehicle-rating firms collectively bestow hundreds of honors each year, in categories ranging from the simple ("Car of the Year") to the inane ("Best Online Sales Experience").
The fact is, the judges know that the more awards they give, the more their names are plastered on ads, which only raises their profile. At the same time, car companies get official-sounding endorsements that are more convincing than any ad copy. This system works for everyone -- except you, who are left trying to sort out meaningful accolades from extraneous ones when you shop for a car.
Here's what to heed from the top award givers -- and what deserves a healthy dose of skepticism.
Objective, but are they relevant?
J.D. Power & Associates
Pay more attention to the Vehicle Dependability Study than to the oft-touted Initial Quality Survey.
The facts: The big kahuna in auto-quality surveys is rock solid in its objectivity and methodology. In Power's Initial Quality Survey (IQS), more than 62,000 car owners rate how well their cars performed during the first 90 days of ownership. The firm also conducts a longer-term assessment of cars' reliability, as well as a survey that measures how much consumers like their car and a survey about the sales experience. Since those polled are ordinary consumers who actually own their vehicles, the results can be considered as accurate as any survey's.
The skinny: Is telling people how a car holds up after 90 days really all that revealing? The company's Vehicle Dependability Survey, in which more than 50,000 respondents rate their own cars after driving them for three years, is a far better indicator of a car's overall reliability. But Power's Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL, get it?) survey measures owners' decidedly fuzzy "delight with the design, content, layout and performance of their new vehicles," says the firm.
The other often-cited survey is the Sales Satisfaction Index, which measures a customer's experience with a new-vehicle purchase. The problem is that a high score in this survey may or may not apply to you: A car company's dealer network may get high marks on a national average, but that doesn't mean much if your local dealer is lousy, and vice versa. To find out that sort of information, you're far better off surveying your friends and neighbors.
Prom King and Queen
North American Car and Truck of the Year
It's got expert opinions, sure, but this survey is more beauty pageant than quantitative analysis.
The facts: A jury of 46 journalists -- from magazines, television, newspapers and the Web -- presents this award to the single most ground-breaking new car and truck each January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. There are no commercial tie-ins.
"We're just a bunch of automotive writers who get together to decide which two vehicles we collectively think are the best," says John McElroy, of Autoline Detroit, who is on the group's steering committee.
The skinny: Read that quote again. That's both a good and a bad thing. It's good because you're getting the majority opinion of a group of people who eat, sleep and breathe cars and trucks every day. The problem is that what a group of automotive journalists think is a great car may be different from what people who have actually purchased, driven and lived with their car think.
The North American Car and Truck Awards are a great gauge for determining the trendiest vehicles hitting the market, but remember that this is a popularity contest, not an honor based upon specific criteria such as value, fuel efficiency, safety, roominess or handling.
Here's a reminder of why measuring emotional responses is best left to you.
The facts: There are three major categories of awards given out by this market research firm: Total Quality, Total Value and Customer Delight.
The Total Quality Index polls more than 40,000 owners of vehicles purchased within the past three months. It asks them about functional aspects of their cars, but it also measures owners' emotional responses to the vehicles they drive.
The Total Value Index starts with the same questions in the Total Quality Index but then goes one step further: It weighs those responses against economic issues such as price and resale value.
As for Customer Delight, the best thing to do is to let Strategic Vision describe it. According to the company, the index "assesses the customers' responses to specific aspects of their vehicles, capturing the strength of the emotional response to what the vehicle delivers."
The skinny: Weighing emotional responses sounds a lot like Power's APEAL survey -- in other words, a dark art that can best be forgotten. You don't need someone else to tell you if a car will tug at your heartstrings; you can figure that out for yourself.
Furthermore, there's the issue of category creep. Many of these firms have dozens of awards to hand out, but Strategic Vision is one of the most generous: Each of the three major awards is offered in 23 categories, and in 2005, 53 different models won something. With those numbers, it's almost easier to rule out which cars didn't get a trophy.
Loyal to a fault?
R.L. Polk & Co.
You'd do better to focus on more objective ratings.
The facts: Polk's Automotive Loyalty Award is given to 14 categories of cars and trucks. The market research company combs through more than 6 million vehicle registration and lease transaction records to determine which models are generating the most repeat business.
The skinny: Lots of people go back and buy a new version of the car they used to drive. That doesn't mean it's a great car. People may like their dealer; they may have gotten a great lease or finance rate; they may not want to think about it too much but just go with what's familiar -- regardless of whether there's something better out there.
In the small-car class of 2005, the car with the most loyal owners was the Saturn Ion. In the full-size-sedan class, the winner was the Mercury Grand Marquis. It's not that there's any doubt that those cars' owners are the most loyal, but are they really the first (or even second) choice for a new-car buyer?
Sorting Out the Safety Ratings
Page through a magazine, and you're likely to come across an ad touting some car that fared well in various crash tests from either the private IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; iihs.org) or or the the federal government's NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; safercar.gov). Each organization evaluates cars and trucks for crashworthiness, and issues multistar ratings or gold or silver awards.
The IIHS recently revised its ratings system and, in addition to issuing separate ratings for front-, side- and rear-impact results, it now also grants awards to car's that get outstanding ratings overall. A gold award is given to vehicles that receive a "Good" rating across the board. A silver is given to those that receive a "Good" for front and side and an "Acceptable" for rear. For the 2006 model-year, 13 models were considered worthy of either gold or silver.
NHTSA issues one- to five-star ratings based on performance in front- and side-impact tests, as well as in rollovers. The problem lately is that cars have gotten so good at withstanding the NHTSA front-impact test (which is a full-frontal impact, as opposed to the IIHS' more challenging offset-front impact) that it is nearly impossible for a car or truck to get less than four or five stars. For the 2006 model-year, 33 vehicles received four- or five-star ratings for both driver's-side frontal impact and front-seat passenger impact. NHTSA is looking to revise its tests so that they are more revealing.
Bottom line: Any car worth considering should be at the top of both groups' lists. There's no excuse for it not to be.
The Best Small Car Is...
You'd think awards would help narrow your choices when shopping for a new car, wouldn't you? But take a look at the 2005 prize list for small cars, which earned more trophies than a soccer team of nine-year-olds. Ten different models won an award, from Highest Initial Quality to Most Delightful.
Doesn't really help all that much, does it?
Ford Focus -- Total Quality Small Car (Strategic Vision)*
Scion xA -- Total Value Small Car (Strategic Vision)
Volkswagen Jetta -- Most Delightful Small Car (Strategic Vision)*
2002 Chevrolet Prism -- Most Dependable Compact Car (J.D. Power)
Toyota Prius -- Highest Ranked Compact Car in Initial Quality (J.D. Power)
Kia Spectra -- Most Delightful Small Car (Strategic Vision)*
Mini Cooper -- Most Appealing Compact Car (Strategic Vision)
Saturn Ion -- Automotive Loyalty Award for Small Car (R.L. Polk)
Hyundai Accent -- Total Quality Small Car (Strategic Vision)*
Mazda3 -- Total Quality Small Car (Strategic Vision)*