Thoughts while scanning the annual Consumer Reports Auto Issue (published by Consumers Union, which hates to be quoted in this fashion, available at your newsstand for a price they don't bother to print on subscription copies):

Toyota is no longer untouchable.  Almost every vehicle produced by Japan's automotive giant gets a CR "Recommended" tag, but it looks to me like they're having to work harder to get them — or that Consumers Union has figured out that some people (I don't) suspect them of being in Toyota's pocket. The Tacoma pickup truck missed getting a "Recommended" tag because, they said, "a tip-up in NHTSA's rollover tests is cause for concern," a new addition to their extensive criteria for exclusion. (One other vehicle that performed similarly, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, was banished for below-average reliability.) That's a minor point, but this may not be: the Toyota Matrix wagonette and its Pontiac Vibe sister, built on the same assembly line in California, have exactly the same CR dot-pattern reliability ratings — all solid red except for "Body integrity", which got half a red dot — but the Vibe finished above-average in reliability and the Matrix didn't. The difference is even more marked in the bar-chart reliability comparisons which rate the vehicles overall. (Disclosure: My daughter owns a Matrix.)

Longevity does not necessarily confer reliability.  Buick's ancient Regal is, in fact, the most reliable family sedan according to CR's data, outstripping even such famed service-avoiders like the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. And you'd think that they've been building them for so long, it's about time they got the bugs out of them. Then you look at the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari vans, which date to the Cretaceous period, and they're just as sloppily screwed together as ever.

Hyundai is on a roll.  Three "Recommended" tags for Hyundai's six models, and the Elantra (which isn't one of them, owing to its cruelty to crash-test dummies) is actually above average in reliability. Curiously, its corporate sister Kia, which they envision as the "upscale" division of the company, was generally derided, with one "Recommended" out of six and the Iron Age Sedona minivan dismissed as a reliability black hole. (Well, half a black hole.)

Whither Germany?  Deutschland is über no one in the reliability sweepstakes: two BMWs, the BMW-developed Mini Cooper, most Volkswagens, and every last Mercedes-Benz (!) finished with fairly horrid scores, the hyperexpensive and insanely-complicated BMW 7-series coming in dead last. No one will argue that, say, a Lexus LS 430 is more fun than a 530i or an E-Class; on the other hand, the Lexus is a lot less likely to spend two weeks a month being ministered to by the dealership at a hundred bucks an hour. If the Japanese ever figure out how to duplicate that German feel, the Bimmers and the Benzes are doomed.

This is starting to become an annual feature; I did my first such piece in Vent #236 back in 2001, and so long as I'm hard up for topics at the beginning of spring, I can keep it going more or less indefinitely.

The Vent

#381
15 March 2004

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 Copyright © 2004 by Charles G. Hill