And the best new cars and light trucks you can buy are…
Hold on now. You might have noticed the dizzying array of scorecards dotting the new-vehicle landscape. Consumer Reports has its top picks and standout models. Strategic Vision has its Total Quality Awards. J.D. Power and Associates measures goodness from a variety of perspectives in a number of different research studies – initial quality, long-term dependability, things gone right…
To make matters even more confusing, publications and television shows, Internet websites and radio hosts all busy themselves handing out awards. I won't get into particular names; those who want publicity should buy an ad. But they're out there and they do get attention from some media outlets.
Of course, journalists also like to get into the act. In Canada, both the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) and the Canadian Automotive Jury hand out hardware on an annual basis. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Jury and a past member of AJAC.) A bunch of journos also hand out the North American Car and Truck of The Year awards. Japanese journos give their own awards and the Europeans do, too.
Most car companies encourage this. In general, publicity is always good. But also because there are so many awards given out by so many groups and individuals, most models eventually end up winning something. That triumph is often loaded up into marketing materials and paraded through ad versing: "The 2013 Whiz Bang, recent winner of The Annual Award for Shiniest Chrome Accents, is the brightest star of the 2013 model year …"
You get the idea. Certainly it's amusing enough to chronicle and comment on all this. However, few of these awards are meaningful. Not many are the product of careful, well-planned and executed research that is broad in scope, detailed in its inquiry and executed by bright and qualified researchers and analysts. But there are always exceptions.
At this time of year, just before the fall buying season gets into full swing, I like to pull together several of what I'll call "credible" research studies from established organizations to look for common threads. I look for vehicles which stand out from their peers in more than one study. This strips out the one-time wonders, the anomalous victors that are mere blips on the landscape of research into vehicle excellence.
This year, I picked out the best-performing vehicles in four separate studies. The first three were done by the research firm J.D. Power and Associates: the 90-day Initial Quality Study, the long-term Vehicle Dependability Study, and the so-called "things gone right" study called the Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study. I then dug into Consumer Reports annual auto issue for 2013, rummaging around for the short list of standout models and top picks.
Yes, I burned up a few hours tapping away at a spreadsheet. This allowed me to cross-reference the best in all the vehicle categories – from compact car to sporty rides to large pickups. After the better part of a day, patterns began to emerge in most vehicle categories, though not all.
For instance, among subcompact cars, the Honda Fit and the Hyundai Accent were the only two to get a high-level nod from at least two of the four studies. The Accent, in fact, is a darling of not only the APEAL study, but also is a leader in initial quality (IQS) and a standout in CR's ratings. You want a good small car, the Accent must be on your shopping list. The Fit, meanwhile, is excellent in initial quality and a CR standout to boot.
Sporty cars? The best affordable ones are the Mazda MX-5 roadster (IQS and CR), Volkswagen Eos (IQS, CR), Volkswagen GTI (IQS, APEAL, CR) and the Mini Cooper (APEAL, CR) and the Ford Mustang (IQS, APEAL).
If you want a mid-size car with broad appeal, the Honda Accord (APEAL, CR), Toyota Camry (IQS, CR), Hyundai Sonata (IQS, CR), Buick Regal (IQS, CR) and Kia Optima (APEAL, CR) are all worthy of a long look.
Among luxury cars, the Lexus LS was a standout in the IQS and APEAL studies, and Consumer Reports loved the car, too. Audi's all-road crossover, somewhat unloved and under-appreciated, has a good initial reputation (IQS), lots to love (APEAL) and CR judges it a standout model. Those who want an expensive SUV could do worse than Toyota's Sequoia (APEAL, IQS and CR).
And on and on. Cynics will snipe about the heavy weighting given the studies from J.D. Power and Associates. So be it. Power does indeed sell its research to clients and the publicized results are shared largely as marketing tools. Yet Power has been around a long time and the studies have credibility. Moreover, J.D. Power updates its studies regularly to keep them relevant.
Consumer Reports rates vehicles on its own testing, but top picks must also do well for reliability in owner surveys. CR, too, banks on credibility and reliability in order to attract readers and subscribers.
I have no doubt that the vehicles on this list are excellent rides. Most buyers would not be unhappy owning any one of them, all things considered. Perhaps these are not the absolute best new vehicles you can buy, but if they're not, they're among them.