The Appliance Enthusiast

What's the publication most widely read by Americans in search of a new or used car? Hint: it's not the outstanding periodical you're holding in your hands, insightful and award-winningly excellent though it is.

No, the most favored advice comes not from this or any of the other "buff" books you've spent a large portion of your life buried in. The holder of America's car-advice crown is and has long been Consumer Reports, a distinctly nonenthusiast monthly that dispenses its plainspoken views on cars along with similarly frisky reports on things like dishwashers and microwave ovens, chain saws, ink-jet printers, and margarine.

OK, maybe not so frisky. But with 3.8 million print subscribers, Consumer Reports (CR) is, by circulation, one of the top magazines in the United States. Entering its seventy-eighth year, it is, in influence, arguably the most powerful outlet in the entire world of automobiles. With a huge reach (including 3.2 million paid web subscriptions), its concise monthly helping of scientific road tests and highly clinical ratings have in the past made some cars (Honda Accord, Toyota Camry) and broken some car companies. Suzuki (Samurai) and Isuzu (Trooper), anyone?

CR's annual car-ownership surveys are typically based on about 1.3 million vehicle histories, making its reliability rankings for new and used cars unusually well-founded and widely watched -- last year alone, its reliability surveys reached some eight million consumers.

Indeed, CR's findings have been closely followed by carmakers for years, despite the fact that in the past, the industry has often been openly antagonistic to the magazine, an outfit they -- along with most of the enthusiast press -- derided as a fever storm of pocket-protected Puritanism, staffed by lab-coated alarmists neurotically fixated on discovering design and assembly defects where all was well and there were none. Of course, all wasn't well with consumer goods, not by a long shot.

The funny thing is, things are generally much better now, if hardly perfect, in terms of quality and safety. Yet car companies have changed; they all suddenly seem to think -- at least they act like they think -- that the magazine they once hated with a most shrill gusto must now be afforded the utmost in deference and respect. In years past, CR's advocacy for better seatbelts and children's safety seats and for the adoption of rollover standards for SUVs put it squarely at odds with industry positions. Nowadays, it seems that CR is de facto correct in most any criticism it might level or position it might take, whether the manufacturer agrees in its heart of hearts or not. This marks a new sensibility in the world of building and selling cars, one worth exploring.

Consumer Reports visits with automakers on a regular basis -- both at the CR test facility in Connecticut and on the manufacturers' home turf -- to discuss their products. After Consumer Reports rated Ford's MyFord Touch and Lincoln's MyLincoln Touch poorly in 2011, members of the magazine's test staff found themselves behind closed doors in earnest discussion with Ford designers and engineers. Ford tried halfheartedly to make the case for its system, which operates radio, climate control, navigation, phone, and music-player functions from a single touchscreen -- and by many accounts works pretty badly.

It didn't help the cause that Ford engineers seemed considerably less pleased with the system than its designers, according to participants. Soon, all of Ford was vowing to improve it on an expedited basis, including CEO Alan Mulally himself. That's not entirely surprising, since MyFord Touch is one of the most annoying of touchscreen interfaces. Its promised makeover has since arrived, but to Ford's frustration CR continues to maintain that the system is overly complicated and places too many controls -- for which a knob would have sufficed -- on a screen that cannot be easily or safely navigated while driving. (For the record, CR doesn't care for Cadillac's Cue system, either.) MyFord Touch has dragged down Ford's reliability ratings in CR's annual consumer survey and fared poorly in J. D. Power research as well. Expect further changes.

Ford's game plan of addressing CR's criticism frontally was hardly unique, however. In 2011, Honda's latest Civic was sent in for a comprehensive rethink within veritable moments of its launch and chilly reception by CR and other media outlets. Accusing the Japanese maker of building a car with "a choppy ride, abundant road noise, vague steering, and cheap interior," the magazine refused to give the car one of its prized "Recommended Vehicle" designations. In failing the Civic, Consumer Reports opined, not unlike a car magazine, "We do expect the Civic to be reliable, but that alone doesn't make it a good car."

Eighteen months earlier, the day the magazine judged the Lexus GX460 a "Don't Buy: Safety Risk" because of faulty handling in extremis -- attributable to a late-to-intervene stability control system -- parent Toyota yanked the model from the market until a software fix could be developed for dealers to install. Rechecked by CR with the new software in place, the SUV was given a clean bill of health and the magazine immediately lifted the damning label. The power of the press, indeed.

Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports is the official organ of the Consumers Union, an advocacy group raised by prominent professors, engineers, journalists, and labor leaders of that faraway day. From the start, a central part of CR's appeal -- its USP if you will -- has been editorial independence, an ingredient that was baked into the mold, along with the vaguely pinko, Depression-era notions that people ought to know what they're buying, that manufacturers have an obligation to make their products as safe and durable as practicable, and that the people doing the testing oughtn't be beholden to those manufacturers in any way.

CR doesn't accept advertising, and its staff is forbidden from taking anything of value from carmakers. This means that they don't attend any of the myriad car-launch junkets scheduled for the press each year -- no free hotels, ponchos, or iPads to cloud their loyalties. Instead, CR buys its long-term test cars outright from random dealers, a procurement procedure it adopted early on when its initial 1930s practice of borrowing test cars from friends and neighbors grew old quickly. Moreover, staffers report even today, when they do receive short-term cars directly from manufacturers, that the test data sometimes reveals them to be quicker and more powerful than identical cars CR purchased privately.

Last year, the magazine bought new (and sold slightly used) more than eighty cars. It's a situation made possible only by a very positive cash flow, one has to figure, especially when you consider the depreciation hit they take on every car and every other product purchase they make as an organization. Last year, for instance, Consumer Reports took a $37,000 bath on a BMW 7-series they'd bought and run for only eight months.

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