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The Globe and Mail

When will Detroit cars ace Consumer Reports tests?

2013 Dodge Dart


The way Consumer Reports tests vehicles is not a secret. In fact, CR regularly has auto companies come to its Connecticut testing facility to learn how the CR testers work.

So a simple question: why can't Detroit auto makers nail CR's tests on a consistent basis?

Take the 2013 Dodge Dart. It's handsome, and as all the road testers out there agree – including CR – this compact feels solid. Ride and handling is very, very good, too. And buyers have all sorts of options from which to choose on a car starting at $15,995. Yet the Dart is not getting any real love from CR – love in the form of a "recommendation."

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So the first all-new model to emerge from the Fiat-Chrysler alliance "can't yet measure up to the best in class," says CR auto testing director Jake Fisher. I agree and wrote just that in my review of the Dart. Sure, the cabin is quiet, but I don't think the handling is as nimble as CR says. However, the highway ride is superbly tight and composed.

"The Dart is the first decent compact car from Dodge in decades," says Fisher. He's right. The Dart makes that old Neon look like a tin can on wheels. Yes, the Dart "has some solid positives," says Fisher.

But the engines and transmissions? Not quite up to snuff. As I noted months ago, the standard 2.0-litre four-cylinder feels underpowered. And I also agree with CR's assessment of the optional 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder: raspy. And when mated with the optional dual-clutch automated manual transmission, CR is right to say there are some issues with drivability. "Overall," notes Fisher, "it can't yet measure up to the best in class."

And why not? Why can't the engineers from Chrysler and Fiat deliver engines and transmissions that can match up head-to-head with the best? I suggest that installing engines with gasoline direct injection engines would be a good start. I mean, Ford has direct fuel injection in the Focus and Hyundai does the same with the Elantra, to name two.

What about luxury cars? Detroit's auto companies have not been globally competitive on the luxury front for as long as I can remember. Yes, yes, there are exceptions. Cadillac sells a decent number of cars in China. But neither Lincoln nor Caddy has a lineup and a distribution channel on par with the best from, say, Germany. I'm talking about Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, to be specific. The top Japanese premium brands – Lexus and Infiniti – are also a cut above, and Honda is vowing Acura is on the move, too.

But don't despair, say executives from Ford Motor and General Motors. Lincoln is being reborn and Caddy is really and truly on the way back. Not so fast. Consumer Reports has concluded that the all-new Cadillac XTS and Lincoln MKS underwhelmed in a class dominated by German, Japanese, and Korean models.

"Consumer Reports engineers found the Cadillac to be wonderfully luxurious, with a very spacious and well-appointed cabin. But it's hampered by its CUE infotainment system, which testers found to be convoluted and frustrating," said CR in its report.

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As for the Lincoln, it's quiet, loaded with features, and has excellent build quality. "But the car is hampered by its cramped driving position, ungainly handling, uncomposed ride, and limited visibility. With an overall road-test score of 60, the MKS is the lowest-rated luxury sedan in class, lagging far behind previously-tested standouts like the Audi A6 and Infiniti M37," says CR.

The engineers and product planners at Ford and GM will surely argue with CR's final assessment. Okay. And so what? Frankly, I didn't always agree with the marks I got on some of my university term papers, either. But I figured out how to please my professors – I figured out how to take the test and do well so I could get into graduate school and get on with my life.

I want to know why Chrysler, GM and Ford haven't figured out how to take the tests of the highly influential CR, with its seven million readers. Nailing CR's testing will build their brands more than all the Super Bowl advertising and social media dithering in the world.

Detroit car companies have come so very far in the past few years, rebuilding their product lines, streamlining their manufacturing, growing their businesses. Now it's time for all three Detroit-based auto makers to start acing the tests that resonate with consumers on a gut level.

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