2012 Toyota Prius c (© Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.)Click to enlarge picture

2012 Toyota Prius c

A perfect storm of reliability problems has dropped Ford to next to last among the 28 car brands ranked in Consumer Reports 2012 Annual Auto Reliability Survey, while its luxury brand, Lincoln, placed just a notch higher.

Only two years ago, Ford was Detroit's poster child for reliability. It cracked the top 10 among brands in Consumer Reports predicted-reliability scores, with more than 90 percent of its models being average or better. This year the top seven spots are all held by Japanese brands.

Several factors contributed to Ford's decline in Consumer Reports reliability rankings. A few new or redesigned models, including the Explorer, Fiesta, and Focus, came out of the gate with more problems than normal. Ford has also added the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch electronic infotainment system, which has been problematic so far, to many vehicles. In addition, three historically reliable models — the Ford Escape, Fusion and the Lincoln MKZ — are not included in the analysis; the three were redesigned for 2013 and CR doesn't yet have reliability data on them.

Toyota, on the other hand, has excelled in Consumer Reports latest ratings. Its three brands — Scion, Toyota, and Lexus — swept the top spots. Toyota is clearly setting the pace in reliability. Of the 27 models in the brand's lineup, 16 earned the highest rating. The subcompact Prius C earned Consumer Reports top score overall. The hatchback Prius, the larger Prius V, and the new Prius plug-in were also above average.

The Toyota trio was followed by four other Japanese makes: Mazda, Subaru, Honda, and Acura, in that order. All of the models produced by the top seven brands had average or better reliability. And of the 90 Japanese models reflected in Consumer Reports brand comparison, 86 were average or better, with 35 earning the highest rating.
Leading the Europeans, Audi had its best showing ever, moving up 18 spots to eighth place, making it easily the most reliable European make and the top non-Japanese brand.

The findings from Consumer Reports 2012 Annual Auto Survey are based on subscribers' experiences with 1.2 million vehicles. The organization uses that extensive data to predict how well new cars that are currently on sale will hold up. For full reliability charts and predicted reliability on hundreds of 2012 models, plus a list of what's up and what's down, visit ConsumerReports.org.

Mixed bag for domestics

Cadillac is the top U.S. brand, having moved up 14 spots this year. Its CTS coupe was the most reliable domestic car. A number of other General Motors nameplates — Buick, Chevrolet, GMC — also moved up in the ranking. The Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car continues to have above-average reliability, and the compact Chevrolet Cruze, dismal in its first year, improved to average.

Chrysler brands had a few setbacks. This year, Consumer Reports has enough data to report on some of the recently revamped Chrysler and Dodge models, and their problems have dragged the nameplates' rankings down. The Dodge Charger, for example, returns with well-below-average reliability. Other models had ups and downs. The V6 version of the Chrysler 300 sedan, with an average rating, is now the brand's most reliable model, and the V8 300 is its worst. Likewise, the V6 Jeep Grand Cherokee scores average and the V8 is now below par. The differences stem from the alternative powertrains and the extra features found in higher-priced versions. Separating its trucks into a new nameplate, Ram, didn't help Dodge's standing. And the Fiat 500 debuted with average reliability in its first year in the U.S.