(Bloomberg ) Japanese car brands, led by Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)'s Lexus, took the top seven spots in Consumer Reports magazine's annual quality rankings, as the top U.S. brand placed 14th out of 26 in the ratings.
Lexus received the most points based on the scores of its eight models, all of which the magazine recommends buying. Parent-company Toyota's namesake line tied for fourth place with Honda Motor Co.'s Acura brand. Subaru, a unit of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (7270) that placed first among automakers last year, was second and Mazda Motor Corp. (7261)'s Mazda was third.
Consumer Reports changed its ranking system this year, breaking out brands instead of ranking automakers according to collective scores for all their lines.
"We feel this is more in line with how people shop," Rik Paul, the magazine's automotive editor, said in an interview before the rankings were released today at the National Press Club in Washington.
Consumer Reports, published by Consumers Union, tests and evaluates cars for how well they drive, interior-finish quality, fuel economy and reliability. The rankings influence car buyers and are published in the magazine's annual auto issue.
Japanese brands combined to account for 36.9 percent of vehicles sold last year in the U.S., according to Autodata Corp., a researcher based in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
General Motors Co. (GM)'s Cadillac, boosted by the CTS, was the top U.S. brand, ranking 14th. The CTS was rated above-average for reliability and called "as capable as its German rivals."
The bottom six brands in the rankings were U.S.-based -- Chrysler Group LLC's Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep; Ford Motor Co. (F)'s Ford and Lincoln; and GM's Buick.
"The American automakers are getting better," Paul said. "As much as companies are improving, companies like Toyota and Honda are still raising the bar."
Chrysler accepted the criticism and said it's working to improve its vehicles.
"Although we are moving in the right direction, we'll be the first to acknowledge that we need to improve faster," Doug Betts, senior vice president for quality, said in an e-mail. "We're aggressively upgrading our product lineup. For example, we're already making significant investments to vehicles already recommended by Consumer Reports -- Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango."
Ford said it's working on improvements to infotainment and transmissions.
"In North America at the moment, J.D. Power and other third-party results validate our own internal metrics showing isolated areas for improvement -- primarily with MyFord Touch and PowerShift automatic transmissions," Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesman, said in an e-mail. "The good news is customers already are benefiting from the updates we made to both technologies."
"Ford has had problems with reliability," Paul said, because the company's infotainment system is difficult to use and repair-prone. That fault "hits them twice" in rankings on the road test and reliability, he said.
Cadillac's in-vehicle infotainment system is "following down the path of Ford and Lincoln," Jake Fisher, director of auto testing, told reporters today. "It takes a long time to do simple things."
GM is making progress, Mike Hardie, the automaker's director of global quality strategy, said in an interview.
"There's certainly a lot of work to do, but I do believe we're on a good track and we really want to score better," Hardie said.
About 70 percent of GM's product portfolio is turning over in the next 12 months, Hardie said.
"We anticipate grand and glorious things in the future," he said.
Lexus earned praise for vehicles that are "generally quiet, plush and very reliable, though they're rarely sporty," the Yonkers, New York-based magazine said.
The ranking for Lexus "speaks to our renewed focus on quality, and listening to customers and giving them what they want," said Michael Kroll, a spokesman for the Toyota brand.
Toyota sold 2.08 million cars and light trucks in the U.S. last year, trailing only GM and Ford, as it expanded its Prius hybrid lineup and its Camry midsize sedan remained the nation's best-selling car model.
Because redesigns of Chrysler's Dodge Ram and GM's Chevrolet Silverado haven't been tested, the magazine elected not to make a "best pick" among all types of pickups this year. In its place, Consumer Reports brought back the "budget car" category, choosing Hyundai Motor Co. (005380)'s Elantra as the best car for less than $20,000.
Honda's Accord won the best pick for the midsized sedan category, the top-selling vehicle class in the U.S. Volkswagen AG (VOW)'s Audi A6 was the best pick for luxury cars and Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) AG's 328i was the best pick for sports sedans, bringing German automakers back into the best picks list for the first time in a decade.
"Audi has come a long way," Fisher said. "Five years ago, I never thought I would be talking about Audi and reliability in the same sentence or even the same paragraph."
Volkswagen, Europe's largest carmaker, placed 16th in brand rankings. The manufacturer has a target of overtaking Toyota and GM to become the world's biggest carmaker by 2018. Its U.S. sales have been undeterred by poor reviews by Consumer Reports of its Jetta SE sedan, which placed last in its category of compact sedans.
Deliveries of Volkswagen brand cars and SUVs surged 35 percent in the U.S. last year to 438,133, the best since 1973. The division has more than doubled its market share since 2007, to 3 percent from 1.4 percent.