What’s the secret to repeatedly getting onto Consumer Reports' prized list of best cars and car brands? The answer is, in part, consistency: Get it right and don’t change much.
Auto brands including Honda, Mazda, Subaru and Toyota stick with tried-and-true features and are stalwarts on the list, says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization evaluates and tests automobiles to choose its Top Picks annually.
Toyota and Subaru, for instance, don’t appear to change much from one year to the next, regardless of whether the automakers tout “updates” in an effort to give new models an exciting buzz.
“The dirty secret about Toyota and Subaru is that when they redesign, do they really redesign?” Fisher asks.
A prime example: Subaru’s Forester, a small SUV shaped a bit like a sneaker, has always used the mechanical underpinnings — sometimes called the platform — of the automaker’s Impreza small car and its proven hardware. This year, the Forester makes its ninth consecutive appearance on Consumer Reports’ top 10 list, this time in the $25,000–$35,000 category. The organization’s categories aren’t identical from year to year.
Also in the “steady as she goes” mode is the entire Mazda brand. “Everything they make, we recommend,” Fisher notes, though none ends up at the top spot in any given price category this year.
Top brands also revealed
Consumer Reports’ brand rankings can be as interesting and informative as the individual model rankings.
The list of the organization’s 10 best brands this year, based on overall scores of each brand’s models, are: Subaru, Mazda, BMW, Honda, Lexus, Audi, Porsche, Mini, Toyota and Infiniti.
“For mainstream brands like Subaru, Mazda and Honda to have such a strong showing is remarkable. For consumers, it shows that you don’t need to splurge on a luxury brand to get a safe, satisfying and reliable car,” Fisher says.
This information can be especially useful now, when a particular car model might be hard to find or carry a premium due to COVID-related shortages. Microchips, which are used in vehicles in everything from simple phone connections and power seats to electronic controls for the engine, are in short supply, which means some car models are also scarce.
If the model you want isn’t available, one that’s somewhat close in size and features might be available from the same brand.
One example: If you run into a shortage of Toyota RAV4 SUVs, perhaps consider the recently launched Toyota Corolla Cross, a Corolla-sedan-based model transformed into SUV/wagon styling that’s slightly smaller than the RAV4.
Or perhaps substitute a Subaru Crosstrek for the Subaru Forester that’s on the Consumer Reports list, but perhaps unfindable. Both are SUVs with all-wheel drive, and both have the federal government’s top crash-safety score. And if the Crosstrek is hard to find, shoppers can consider the larger Subaru Outback instead. Though the Outback is a bit more wagon-like in appearance than either the Crosstrek or the Forester, it has the same safety ratings and same 29 miles-per-gallon overall fuel economy per government tests.
Meet the CR top 10
The nonprofit organization chooses its top models in various price categories, based on Consumer Reports’ testing and owner surveys, predicted reliability and safety features. Many of the models are now more expensive than when Consumer Reports’ price categories were determined using automakers’ suggested retail price, so make sure to do your own research. The fuel economy numbers are those reported by the magazine.
Crash test scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency, are overall scores that combine how a car protected the driver in several types of crashes. The NHTSA 5-star is the highest rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group, awards its highest rating of Top Safety Pick + if a car scores well in all of its tests. IIHS’ runner-up score is Top Safety Pick without the “+”. If a vehicle didn’t receive the IIHS Top Safety Rating or Top Safety Rating +, no overall IIHS overall score is given.
Nissan Sentra (small car)
The Sentra is what today, at least, passes for a low-cost, high-value sedan. Consumer Reports says it feels more premium than rivals: its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine accelerates quicker than most in its class, and it has a “comfortable ride and nimble handling,” and a passenger compartment that’s “nicely appointed for the price.” Visibility is good; infotainment and climate controls are “a model of simplicity.” All versions come with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capabilities as well as Nissan’s Safety Shield 360, including Blind Spot Warning.
Be aware: Owner satisfaction is below average.
Crash test score: NHTSA 5-star
Nissan Rogue Sport (subcompact SUV)
Consumer Reports calls this vehicle “more mature and substantial” than most rivals. “Front access is a snap, and the driver is treated to an elevated seat height that aids visibility and offers abundant headroom.”
Predicted reliability is “commendable,” and the SUV has a roster of safety equipment that humbles pricier models, with Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Alert, Rear Cross-Traffic Warning and Rear Automatic Braking all standard.
Be aware: Significantly lower-than-average owner satisfaction.
Crash test score: Not yet rated
$25,000 to $35,000
Subaru Forester (small SUV)
Marking its ninth consecutive Top Picks appearance, the Forester received a “light freshening” for 2022 and added a black exterior trim that Subaru calls both “protective” and “eye-catching.” Consumer Reports notes: “The secret to the Forester’s success has been its efficient, spacious design; strong fuel economy; focus on safety; great road-test performance; and strong reliability history.” The upright shape gives it outstanding roominess and “fishbowl-like outward visibility.” Buyers get “responsive handling and a supple ride,” and the “latest EyeSight suite of safety features is standard.”
Crash test score: NHTSA 5-star
Honda Accord (midsized sedan)
Consumer Reports calls Accord “the definitive family sedan,” and gives thumbs up to “generous interior space, a pleasant ride, ample power, and impressive efficiency.”
There are enough choices in engines and interiors that you can outfit as a basic salesman’s schlepper to an incognito lux-mobile, “with leather and all the trimmings,” Consumer Reports says.
The hybrid version delivers 47 miles per gallon overall without sacrificing acceleration. “The Accord balances ride comfort and handling acumen, making it as delightful to drive as it is to recline in the passenger seat,” the organization notes.
Crash-test scores: NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick +
MPG: 47 (hybrid)
Toyota Prius (hybrid)/Prius Prime (plug-in hybrid):
The aerodynamic Prius continues to set the standard for fuel-efficient transportation: “A phenomenal 52 mpg overall in [CR’s] tests,” and it “shines for its consistent reliability and owner satisfaction.” The Prius Prime plug-in hybrid is good for about 25 miles of electric-only driving before reverting to regular hybrid operation, with 69 mpg overall. Either version has “an epic 590-mile range between fill-ups. Both versions are pleasant to drive, with a comfortable, steady ride and secure handling. The cabins have a high-tech feel, especially when fitted with the large 11.6-inch center screen.”
Be aware: Rear visibility is hampered, acceleration is ho-hum, controls take getting used to.
Crash test score: NHTSA 5-star
$35,000 to $45,000
Toyota RAV4 Prime (two-row SUV)
The RAV4 Prime is a plug-in hybrid that “transforms the laudable RAV4, endowing it with more power, greater efficiency, a comfortable ride, and a hint more coddling in the cabin,” Consumer Reports says. What’s more, the eco-mobile’s 302 horsepower is “much more than any other mainstream small SUV” and is the second-quickest car in Toyota’s line. You can get up to 42 miles of electric-only range.
Be aware: Takes longer to stop than usual; emits a high-pitched warning noise in reverse.
Crash test scores: None recorded
Kia Telluride (midsized three-row SUV)
Telluride sets the standard for the popular midsized three-row SUV market, Consumer Reports says, because it is simply doing everything well. It’s got a near-perfect road test score, and earned “top ratings for predicted reliability and owner satisfaction.” The publication calls the Telluride roomy, easy to access, comfy and fun to drive. The “boxy shape ensures plenty of room for the driver, passengers, and cargo. The controls are simple, and storage is abundant.”
Be aware: Not very agile
Crash test scores: NHTSA 5-star, IIHS Top Safety Pick
Honda Ridgeline (compact pickup truck)
The Ridgeline “offers rarefied refinement in a pickup body style, with ride, handling, and interior comfort more akin to the Honda Pilot than a typical work truck. It uses a smooth 280-horsepower V6 engine and a nine-speed automatic, adding to the polished driving experience,” Consumer Reports points out. Cleverly, the tailgate can fold down or swing to the side, “allowing easy access to a large, lockable storage box under the [cargo] bed.” Overall, Consumer Reports says, Ridgeline is “well suited for the commuter, family chauffeur, and weekend warrior, as well as the active lifestyle driver who is all those things.”
Be aware: Bed is shallow; off-road capabilities are limited.
Crash test score: NHTSA 5-star
Ford Mustang Mach-E (electric vehicle)
Purists will tell you it’s hardly worthy of the Mustang name, but the electric crossover SUV does borrow some of the sporty car’s styling cues and, as Consumer Reports notes, “stands out in this emerging category for being enjoyable to drive, with quick acceleration, agile handling, and a well-mannered ride. The Mach-E stable goes from tame pony at 266 horsepower to wild stallion at 480 horsepower.” Consumer Reports notes the vehicle had a 270-mile range on a charge, and other versions can go more than 300 miles. Consumer Reports’ conclusion: “This well-executed new model catapults Ford into the burgeoning market with its first purpose-built EV that blends being green with character and driving fun.”
Be aware: Takes a long time to recharge, range is limited, door handles are fussy.
Crash test score: NHTSA, not yet rated; IIHS Top Safety Pick