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Car Rankings: Who Can You Trust?

While consumers and Congress rail about Toyota's past safety failures, the Japanese automaker retains some spots in two influential new-car rankings. Both the National Auto Dealers Association Guides and Consumer Reports Top 2010 Cars have at least one Toyota model as a top pick. So you may be wondering: why didn't reviewers catch Toyota's sudden acceleration defect? And can I really believe these rankings?

Good questions. has a ready-made excuse about Toyota: its statistical approach makes no claim of safety testing. Consumer Reports, however, prides itself on testing. Researchers there say the sudden acceleration problem is so rare that it would be unlikely to show up in their tests. To its credit, CR recently suspended its prior recommendations for eight Toyota models with sudden acceleration recalls. The Prius, which it still recommends, was not in that group. And in the future, the magazine plans to mine more federal safety data and ask more safety questions when gauging a car's reliability.

The bottom line for buyers: Don't rely solely on one ranking. Instead, here's how to use the rankings wisely before you purchase your next new car:

Compare multiple rankings. Look for a consensus among ratings from NADA, CR and the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey, which gets detailed responses about defects from buyers who've owned their new cars for about 90 days. Also, read reviews of specific models at the excellent auto research sites and Kelley Blue Book.

Look three years ahead. After all, it's not just what you'll pay for the car and how it drives initially, it's what the car will cost you as an owner. Some safety-related issues, such as problems with brakes and steering, show up in long-term surveys, says David Sargent, vice president for vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. Consumer Reports and J.D. Power rank how well cars hold up after three years or more. And Consumer Reports Best and Worst Used Cars and the J.D. Power Dependability Study can show you which vexing repairs might come your way with certain models.
Read safety complaints. In an earlier post on "secret warranties," I explained how to discover potential safety problems for a car you own. Similar research on recent models can help steer you away from some new vehicles, since many cars don't change mechanically for three or four model years. One caveat: Since the Toyota recall publicity, consumers have become more vigilant and almost all models now have some complaints.

Now I'll test-drive my advice to tell you what I think is the best small sedan. NADA, Consumer Reports and J.D. Power all pick the Hyundai Elantra, which holds up well for dependability. Although the 2009 model has had some airbag complaints, the 2010 hasn't. So if I were looking for a small sedan, I'd start with the Elantra.

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