Consumer Reports' most reliable car brands: Toyota, Lexus...Buick?

There's one at the top you may not expect. 

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
The Buick logo on the grill of a 2013 Buick Regal on display at the 2013 Pittsburgh Auto Show in Pittsburgh.

Critics are a lonely bunch, and the folks at Consumer Reports are no exception. While many shoppers trust what the magazine has to say, more than a few think it's been unduly judgy when it comes to Detroit car brands.

If you're one of those people, this will come as something of a shock. 

Consumer Reports has published its rankings of the most reliable car brands in America, and at the top of the list sit Toyota (duh), Lexus (also duh), and Buick.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, Buick--the General Motors brand that was, until recently, the butt of so many jokes that Buick used consumers' low expectations to power some very memorable ads. As you can see in the clip above, the "That's A Buick" campaign poked fun at Buick itself and at people's perceptions of a marque that many had written off years ago.

Buick's bronze medal marks the first time in Consumer Reports' 30+ years of issuing reliability rankings that a Detroit brand landed in the top three. No small feat, that.

How did this happen?

To generate its reliability rankings, Consumer Reports polled its 500,000+ subscribers about the problems they'd experienced with their vehicles. Some of the 17 potential trouble spots were fairly minor, like squeaky brakes. Others were major headaches, like transmission failures. 

Then, Consumer Reports compiled that data, paired it with its own test-track findings, and looked at the various problems that specific brands experienced over time. For its new reliability predictions, the company looked at 16 model-years' worth of information. 

Consumer Reports then created a Predicted Reliability Score ranging from 0 to 100. Today's average scores range from 41 to 60 on that scale. 

The magazine even feels comfortable predicting the reliability of new and redesigned models, although there's limited real-world data on them. "[B]y combining what we know about the reliability of the brand with detailed information about previous models, we can give a rating for models that are new to the market."

Da winnas, da loozas

Asian marques all fared well in Consumer Reports' reliability study. In fact, all of them finished in the top half of the survey--even Subaru, though it didn't land in the top ten because of low reliability scores from the 2016 Legacy, Outback, and WRX/STi.

In Europe, the bag was much more mixed. Audi rose, but its sibling Volkswagen tumbled, earning below-average scores on most models. Mercedes-Benz also climbed a bit, even though its GLS, C-, and S-class models received shoddy rankings. Volvo's popular XC90 proved to be the brand's undoing, due to its dodgy infotainment system. 

In America, Ford continued to suffer due to its dual-clutch automatic transmission, and brands like Chevrolet and GMC took hits for some problem-prone SUVs and pickups. Fiat Chrysler fared worst of all, though, with no Fiat or Ram vehicle earning even an "average" rating.

Tesla was included in the rankings for the first time because it now has two vehicles in its lineup--the minimum Consumer Reports allows. Though the Model X fared very poorly (thanks to uncooperative falcon doors, among other things), the Model S earned an "average" rating.

However, the magazine has some moderately harsh words for Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk with regard to the rollout of Autopilot:

"Consumer Reports has serious concerns about how some automakers, including Tesla, have designed, deployed, and marketed semi-autonomous technology. We believe automakers need to clearly communicate what these systems can and cannot do."

Is Consumer Reports "killing people" by making statements like that? We're afraid you'll have to ask Mr. Musk.

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