German Sedans Slip

Could Consumer Reports actually be correct in listing Japanese makes as tops in ratings for performance and reliability?
By Charles J. Murray, Senior Technical Editor June 23, 2008

A friend of mine hates Consumer Reports’ annual auto ratings. When he describes how the magazine reaches its annual conclusions, he wets his finger, sticks it in the air and says, “They go whichever way the wind is blowing.”

If I were him, I’d hate Consumer Reports , too. He owns three German vehicles — an Audi, a Mercedes and a Volkswagen — all of which have received poor reliability ratings from Consumer Reports . He’s convinced there’s an anti-European and a pro-Asian bias at the Consumer’s Union.

And now he has even more reason to hate Consumer Reports . Just as he was beginning to grudgingly accept the CR reliability ratings, along comes the magazine’s luxury sedan performance ratings .

If you’re a German car buff, this latest bit of news might make your blood boil. Recently, CR ran performance tests on four upscale sedans: The Cadillac CTS, BMW 328i, Mercedes-Benz C300 and Saab 9-3. The performance analysis — which is separate and distinct from the reliability ratings — is based on 50 individual tests, ranging from handling and acceleration to emergency braking and fuel economy. The result: The Cadillac CTS placed ahead of the BMW 328i and ahead of the Mercedes-Benz C300. Worse, when posted against earlier results for other luxury vehicles, the BMW placed fifth, behind the Infiniti G35, Acura TL, Cadillac CTS and Lexus IS250. The Mercedes C300 finished seventh, behind all of those and behind the BMW and Acura TSX, too.

For years, German cars have been the standard-bearer in luxury vehicle engineering. Even when the CR reliability ratings of BMW and Mercedes-Benz went south, many engineers argued that German vehicles were still far superior in performance and handling. Many contended Consumer Reports’ reliability ratings had little meaning, since they were supposedly based on complaints involving minor systems, such as climate controls and audio. In the major components — engine, transmission, brakes, suspensions — German vehicles were still the best, they said.

Now that could change. The reliability ratings are growing harder to ignore. There, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have done badly year after year, while Honda and Toyota have done exceptionally well. Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, for example, had no used vehicle models in Consumer Reports’ Best of the Best list this year , while Honda had eight and Toyota had 15. The Best of the Best are directly related to vehicle reliability, which is derived from 1.3 million vehicle surveys.

Let’s be clear about this: European luxury cars aren’t bad vehicles. When all models are considered, Mercedes and VW collectively post some of the highest scores of any nameplate at CR’s Auto Test Center. But the latest message seems to be that other vehicles are catching up on the skid pad while, at the same time, winning big in the reliability ratings.

Like my friend, many European car buffs have adopted a shoot-the-messenger mentality. Consumer Reports’ testers, they say, don’t recognize good engineering when they see it.

But is it possible 1.3 million responses could be wrong, year after year? Is it possible the annual battery of engineering tests is wrong, too?

Maybe it’s time to admit Consumer Reports might actually be right.