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Japanese, Germans Dominate CR's Picks

March 21, 2001|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — As new vehicle segments and engine technologies come onto the market, improving almost every make and model, Japanese and German brands still dominate that respected American benchmark of automotive quality, Consumer Reports' annual survey of new and used cars.

Japanese and German imports swept all categories of the magazine's new-car "Top Picks" for the 2001 model year, with Toyota and Honda dominating the list.

Separately, the magazine reports in its April issue that a review of 20 years of its reader surveys shows that although domestic auto makers' brands have shown the most improvement, they still generate considerably more complaints about problems and defects than do imports. Domestic sport-utility vehicles were particularly problematic, with 2.5 times as many complaints as import models. Overall, the magazine reports, new domestic cars in 2001 "have only improved to about the level where new Japanese cars were in 1985."

For used cars, only three American models made it onto the Consumer Reports list of the top 36 "Good Bets": the Ford Escort and its sister vehicle, the Mercury Tracer--both discontinued--and the Prizm, sold first as a Geo and now as a Chevrolet and built at the joint General Motors-Toyota plant in Northern California.

"Reliability Risks"--the worst of the worst used cars in Consumer Reports' view--was a list dominated, as usual, by General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group vehicles. But, surprisingly, it also included Volkswagen's New Beetle and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV.

Consumer Reports anonymously purchases the vehicles it tests, then puts them through a series of evaluations including emergency handling, acceleration, braking, fuel economy, comfort and convenience. The magazine also surveys its 4 million subscribers to compile information on vehicle reliability, dealer satisfaction and other topics.

The magazine, in defining its 36 "Good Bets" used cars, said the list represents vehicles that "have proved to be very reliable over time." Aside from the Escort/Tracer and Prizm, the only non-Japanese model cited was the BMW 3-series.

Toyota dominated the list with eight picks--4Runner, Avalon, Camry, Celica, Corolla, Previa, RAV 4, Sienna--and three from its Lexus luxury division: ES 300, GS 300/400 and LS 400. There were four from Nissan--Altima, Maxima, Pathfinder and Sentra--and two from its Infiniti luxury unit, the G20 and I30. Honda had four "Good Bets," Accord, Civic, CR-V and Odyssey minivans after the 1999 model. Its Acura luxury unit captured four more, for the Integra, Legend, RL and TL. There were three Mazdas, the Millenia, Miata and Protege; one Isuzu, the Oasis minivan; and Subaru's entire lineup--the Impreza, Legacy and Forester.

At the bottom of the used-car scale were 28 "Reliability Risks," models with multiple years of poor reliability reports.

Four were imports, including the New Beetle, the M-Class Mercedes-Benz, Volvo's S70/V70 all-wheel-drive models, and GM's German-built Cadillac Catera.

GM, which has the most brands of any domestic auto makers, had the most on the bad-bet list, led by its Chevrolet division with five models--Astro van, Camaro, Corvette, Blazer and S-10 V-6 four-wheel-drive compact pickup. The GMC unit had three, the Jimmy,S-15 Sonoma V-6 4WD compact pickup and Safari van. There were two Pontiacs--the Firebird and Grand Am--and two Oldsmobiles, Bravada and Cutlass.

Chrysler Group had eight risky used models: three from Dodge, the Neon, Ram 1500 4WD pickup and 1993-98 model Intrepid; two from Chrysler, the Concorde and New Yorker/LHS; one from Plymouth, the Neon; one Jeep, the Grand Cherokee; and one from the defunct Eagle unit, the 1993-98 Eagle Vision.

Ford Motor Co. had three on the list, two Fords--the Windstar minivan and the Contour--and the Mercury Mystique.

*

Terril Yue Jones is The Times' Detroit bureau chief. He can be reached at t.jones@latimes.com.

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And the Winners Are ...

Here are 10 of Consumer Reports

"Top Picks" for new cars for 2001, with the magazine's comments:

Most fun to drive: Honda S2000.

Uncompromising rear-wheel-drive roadster offering power, pinpoint handling, tenacious tire grip. Price: about $33,000.

Family sedan or wagon: Volkswagen Passat.

Excels as a sedan or wagon. Agile and offers comfortable, well-controlled ride. Price: about $22,000 with four-cylinder engine, $26,000 with V-6 engine.

Small car: Honda Civic EX.

Handles crisply, is roomy, has outstanding brakes, fit and finish. Price: about $18,000.

Sporty coupe: Toyota Celica GT-S.

Handling is capable, nimble and secure. Ride is good, and hatchback configuration adds versatility. Price: about $23,000.

Upscale sport sedan: BMW 330i.

State-of-the-art rear-wheel-drive sedan; a nearly ideal blend of comfort, sportiness, luxury and safety. Price: around $40,000.

Small SUV: Toyota RAV4.

Flexible interior, nimble handling, seamless all-wheel-drive system. Price: about $22,600.

Mid-size SUV: Lexus RX 300.

Derived from a passenger car, has all-wheel drive and refined, quiet and comfortable ride. Smooth, responsive V-6 engine. Price: about $38,000.

Pickup truck: Toyota Tundra.

The benchmark for full-size pickup trucks. Rides well, handles capably, offers smooth, powerful V-8 engine. Cabin is quiet and well put-together. Price: about $30,000.

Minivan: Honda Odyssey.

Roomy cabin, responsive handling, strong powertrain, flexible interior. Third-row seat folds neatly into the floor when not in use. Price: about $27,000.

Best car tested: Mercedes-Benz E320 4matic wagon.

Has it all: spacious interior, agility, comfort, excellent performance, relatively good fuel economy. Price: about $54,000.

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Source: Consumer Reports

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