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Top 10 Car Picks Of 2004

After engineers evaluated 183 vehicles, which Consumer Reports bought and tested for 6,000 miles to 8,000 miles, the organization has come up with its top 10 car picks for 2004.

David Champion, director of Consumer Reports' auto testing facility, talks about the winners and shows five of them to The Early Show co-anchors Julie Chen and Harry Smith.

These vehicles did the best all-around, in comparison to other cars in its category, in the following three areas:

  • A 40-point testing program
  • The subscribers' reliability survey
  • Crash tests

Among the most talked-about sections of this auto issue are the results of the reliability survey, in which the magazine's subscribers report on how their vehicles are holding up. The most interesting finding of this year's survey is that "vehicles from Detroit's Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) are now slightly more reliable, on average, than those from European makers. They also tend to hold up better than the European makes as time passes. It's the first time in decades that U.S. cars have done so well."

Click here to find out why Detroit's big three automakers are more reliable than their European counterparts in a CBS Evening News report by correspondent Bob Orr.

The following are the autos featured on The Early Show:

Ford Focus
Best small sedan, approx. $17,000

Champion says this is a "wonderful small car." Consumer Reports first tested it in 2000 and it was at the top of the ratings, but it didn't do as well on reliability because it had a number of problems. He said that Ford has worked on this and it did well in 2003 and this year. It has a good interior room and good brakes.

Honda Accord
Best 4-cylinder family sedan, approx $21,000-$23,000

This vehicle was redesigned for 2003 and it's a step up for the Honda Accord. Champion points out, "It's become much more nice to drive and has a better engine and transmission, better interior and excellent gas mileage. It's more nimble handling."

Subaru Forester
Best small SUV, approx. $21,000

"It was updated for 2003," Champion says. "It improved in many ways in seat comfort and especially the brakes. They were spongy last year. With the redesign, they improved the brakes to get a firmer pedal and stop shorter. The interior comfort is improved. It handles nimbly, has a good amount of room and reasonable gas mileage.

Honda Pilot
Best three-row SUV, approx. $31,000

This is one of the fastest growing sections of the SUV market. Champion notes, "Many families have found that five seats restricts you to carrying only three children. It gives good room, reasonable engine performance and excellent fuel economy for an SUV (about 19 miles per gallon)."

Toyota Prius
Best green car, approx. $21,500

"This is the second generation Prius," Champion says. "It's much roomier than the previous one. It gives more versatility in handling people and luggage, and it gets better gas mileage at 44 miles per gallon than the previous smaller version. It uses an engine, electric motor and a battery pack. Depending on what you are doing, it will operate one or both power sources. As you're driving along, it recharges the battery so you never have to plug it in."

When asked what the downside of owning a car like this is, Champion says they are expensive to buy for the size you get. "Although the reliability has been excellent, there is an 8-year 100,000 warranty on the battery, but past that, people aren't sure. It's been out for 3 years." Champion says they don't know if the parts will hold up when it gets to be 5 or 6 years old. Also, if you are in one of the small towns in Nevada, for example, the local mechanic will not know how to fix it. The government currently gives a $2,000 rebate on taxes, which offsets the price.

Currently, there are only two manufacturers that are building hybrids, Toyota and Honda. Ford is planning to introduce one this Fall. It will be called the Ford Escape hybrid.

"It will be a similar system to the Prius," Champion says. The G.M. Chevy Silvarado will be a mild hybrid. Also, there will be a Lexis RX 400 H. It's a hybrid version of the RX 330 and Honda is doing a hybrid version of the V6 Honda Accord.

If we continue to see the price of gasoline rise, Champion predicts more people will be buying green cars like the Toyota Prius. But, he says if gas is in the $1.50- $1.65 range, economically it doesn't make as much sense because green cars are more expensive than their non-green counterparts.

He compares the previous generation Prius with the previous Toyota Corolla. (The new one is bigger.) The Prius got 41 miles per gallon against the Corolla at 29 miles per gallon. The Corolla costs $17,000 and the Prius, $20,000, so if you looked at it financially, to pay back the difference in price at a $1.50 per gallon for 15,000 miles, it would take about 15 years. When the price of gas is higher (as it is now), it will take less time. This does not include the incentive that the government is giving to go green.

As for the increase in vehicles being recalled, Champion says, "The systems today tend to be fairly complicated. There are two different reasons to recall. One for safety on exhaust emissions, meaning the engine isn't running as clean as it should be. Also, the manufacturers are reducing the amount of time that it takes them to design, develop and improve a vehicle. They are all trying to shorten the time to put them out. Some of the endurance testing that may go on may be cut a little short or to the bone. So, some of these features may come out and have to be recalled."

Champion notes manufacturers are doing a better job at tracking problems and recalling their vehicles fairly quickly if they think there is a possibility of a problem. Although the car owner is inconvenienced when there is a recall, he says at the end of the day it's good for the consumers.

"The domestic manufacturers have really stepped up to the plate in the last few years to improve reliability," Champion says. "G.M., Ford and Chrysler have been working hard to do this. They have seen the Japanese eating away at the domestic market share, mainly on building very reliable cars in the '90s. The domestics still trail the Japanese by a sizeable margin, but they have taken over the European premium cars like Mercedes and BMWs lately."