With 100s of cars, trucks and crossovers on the market and scores of new models making their debut, picking the right vehicle can be something of a daunting task.
Sure, many buyers are loyalists who will trade in for the some product over and over again, but more and more consumers are willing to look elsewhere if it means getting a safer, more reliable, more attractive and more affordable vehicle. And with fuel prices nudging record levels, buyers seem more willing than ever to consider a switch.
And many of them turn to the non-profit publication Consumer Reports for guidance, especially when the magazine issues its annual Top Picks. Though its list of choices in 10 categories won’t reach print until the April auto issue, CR editors have given a heads-up on what models it they have chosen, models CR declares are “as close as it gets to no-brainers.”
There were some surprises in the list, announced during a meeting of the Washington Automotive Press Association, notably the fact that seven of the 10 were new to the Top Picks list this year, including a tie in the sports car category between the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ. Honda, long a favorite of CR, was shut out in 2012 but lands three models on the much-followed list this year, while Audi and BMW show up for the first time.
To pull together its 17th annual Top Picks, CR’s auto editors considered a variety of factors, including the responses to the yearly survey it conducts of subscribers who this time weighed in on 1.2 million vehicles they own. “Average or better predicted reliability” was the price of entry. The winners also had to score well in both government and insurance industry crash tests, and rank “at or near” the top in each category during the magazine’s own road tests.
Significantly, CR also considered each model’s real-world fuel economy, rather than the EPA ratings, which likely hurt some models that the magazine has faulted for delivering far worse mileage than claimed on the window sticker.
Here are the CR Top Picks:
- Budget car: Hyundai Elantra. Says CR, “You don’t have to settle for a subcompact when looking for an under-$20,000 car,”The well-rounded Elantra delivers a lot for the money. The Elantra delivered a road test score of 80, with its reliability rated at “above average,” and CR estimating fuel economy will average 29 mpg.
- Midsize sedan: Honda Accord. “Honda nailed it,” said CR, adding that the “new model is roomy, nice to drive, well equipped, and very fuel efficient.” The Accord test score was 90, with its reliability rated “above average,” and fuel economy estimated at 26 to 30 mpg.
- Sports car: Scion FR-S and Subaru BR-Z. The unusual tie reflects the fact that these two models are almost identical, Toyota and Subaru developing them together. But what mattered, says CR, is that, “If you take your driving fun seriously, these almost identical twins were built for you. Test scores, 82 and 83, reliability rated “above average,” and overall mpg rated 30.
- Green car: Toyota Prius. While there’s been a lot of talk about plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric vehicles, CR said, “no current plug-in car can match the Prius hatchback for its blend of fuel efficiency, practicality, and affordability.” The magazine does warn buyers to “skip the slow noisy Prius C,” however. Test score 80, reliability “excellent,” and real world mileage 44.
- Compact car: Subaru Impreza. The 2012 remake was a major coupe, CR declaring “Both sedan and hatchback versions are good, sensible cars, with nimble handling and a compliant, absorbent ride that rivals some luxury sedans.” Test score: 79-82, reliability “excellent,” and fuel economy at 26-27 mpg.
- Sports sedan: BMW 328i. “Legendary for its handling prowess and fun-to-drive character,” notes CR, the latest version “has also become roomier, more luxurious, and more fuel efficient.” The magazine did fault the “snug” rear seat and abrupt, gas-saving start/stop system, however. Test score: 86, reliability “excellent,” with overall mpg at 28.
- Luxury car: Audi A6. Like BMW, a first-time brand on the Top Picks list, the A6 was hailed as agile, quick, and a joy to drive. It surrounds you with a sumptuous, impeccably finished cabin that’s brimming with the latest high-tech features.” The magazine did grip about its “complicated” controls, though. Test score: 93, reliability “average,” overall mpg 22.
- Midsize SUV: Toyota Highlander. Editors dubbed it “an SUV with the refinement of a good sedan. It provides a quiet, well-finished cabin, as well as a cushy ride, sound handling, and a smooth powertrain. Reliability, meanwhile, was seen as a particular strength. Test score: 81-89, reliability “excellent,” fuel economy 18 to 27.
- Small SUV: Honda CR-V. The “cute-ute” is one of three Hondas back on the list, and “Virtues include a smooth, responsive powertrain, good fuel economy, a compliant ride, excellent braking, a roomy rear seat, and outstanding reliability.” Test score: 77, reliability “excellent,” and fuel economy 23.
- Minivan: Honda Odyssey. Improved reliability helped land it back on the list. CR editors also note, “It provides a comfortable ride and a roomy, quiet, and versatile cabin. The rear seat is generous and easy to access.” They were also pleased that a back-up camera is now standard. Test score: 83, reliability “average,” overall mpg 19.
Followers of the CR Top Picks list may notice a glaring absence, incidentally. With two major new entries into the full-size pickup segment, editors chose to withhold judgment until they get a chance to test the redesigned Ram 1500, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra models.