Consumer Reports released its closely watched annual ratings of automobiles Monday, putting the Ford Mustang and Kia Sorento newly on its "top picks" pedestals, and enshrining the Honda Fit as a new value-mobile.
Toyota came out as another winner in the rankings, with positive publicity for its Sienna minivan and Rav4 sport-utility vehicle after a rocky period of headlines about product recalls.
Perhaps the biggest winner, though, isn't a 2011 vehicle at all.
It's the idea of buying a used car. Although that's a perennial option for budget-conscious consumers, the ranks of the thrifty have grown as a deep recession has been followed by a lackluster economic recovery.
"With the average new car losing 47 percent of its value in the first three years of ownership, buying a used car can be the best way for consumers to get the most vehicle for their money," Consumer Reports said in materials released to reporters Monday. The magazine's April issue, with the annual car-buying guide, is scheduled to be available on newsstands March 8.
Here's a look at winners and losers in the Consumer Reports analysis:
Winner: buying used
The magazine points to a number of 2008 models that are relatively trouble-free. In all, roughly, three-quarters of the three-year-old vehicles in its survey were problem-free, as were two-thirds of the five-year-old vehicles.
To some extent, the recession has already prompted consumers to shift toward used cars. One sign: Prices of previously owned vehicles have risen about 4 percent, on average, in the past three years (which includes the recession and its aftermath), compared with about 1.5 percent for vehicles bought new at a dealership, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Ford Mustang ranks among 10 "top picks" for 2011 models, displacing the Volkswagen GTI as top sporty car. The Mustang ($28,880 to $43,880) "delivers scorching acceleration, a great exhaust sound, and good fuel economy for the class," Consumer Reports says.
The South Korean carmaker has been gaining US market share in recent years, and in the 2011 rankings its Kia Sorento ($26,590 to $32,390) became the "top pick" in the family SUV category. Last year's title in that group went to GM's Chevrolet Traverse. The Hyundai Elantra ($18,445) retained its slot as top pick in the small car category.
Seven Hyundai or Kia models gain additional applause from Consumer Reports as "best value" vehicles, a list of cars with a premium blend of affordability and reliability. For comparison, Toyota has the lead among all carmakers with 11 best-value rankings.
Speaking of Toyota, it gains some new status in this year's rankings. It accounts for three of the 10 top picks: the Prius ($26,750) winning again in the "green car" group, the Sienna ($35,810 to $38,201) displacing the Mazda 5 as best "family hauler" (minivan), and the Rav4 ($25,405 to $31,435) winning a small-SUV contest that went to the Subaru Forester a year ago.
The Honda Fit ($16,020 to $16,730) is a top pick in a new budget-car category. The Japanese brand also garners top praise, alongside Suburu, in an overall "report card" comparing major carmakers. They shared top billing last year as well. The report card ranks the companies on the expected reliability of their cars and on road-tests of things like handling, safety, and fuel economy.
Loser: Volkswagen and European cars
With VW's loss of top sporty-car status, no European car is among the magazine's top picks. Euro brands also come in for criticism on reliability. "If the new Jetta sedan, with its low-grade interior and mediocre fuel economy, is an indication of where Volkswagen is headed, it’s going in the wrong direction," Consumer Reports says.
Loser: General Motors
GM is still tops in Consumer Reports' list of pickup trucks, with Chevy's Avalanche ($47,435). Last year the Chevy Silverado won. But a year ago GM was making headlines with its Chevy Traverse as top pick in family SUV, a title that went to Kia this year.
Overall, GM has been on a comeback trail, reporting profits in recent quarters as a restructured and leaner company. And in the magazine's overall report card, it improved in both road tests and reliability. But its average test score of 67 is still slightly behind that of Ford (70).
No news is bad news here. Chrysler doesn't have any models among the 10 top picks. The smallest of the Detroit-based carmakers, Chrysler also scored badly in the overall report card. And in rating "best value" cars – that blend of price and performance – Consumer Reports also pointed out poor-scoring models: "Among the worst values, three models are from Chrysler, seven are from GM, and nine are from European brands," the magazine says. Chrysler has hopes for a turnaround under part-owner Fiat, but it has a big job ahead.
A final note: Consumer Reports gives good marks to lots of cars, not just to its top picks. A car buyer may get happy results from a brand regardless of whether it's an incremental loser or winner in this year's rankings.